By Dale O’Dell
Are you looking for something a little different for your next family vacation? Is the beach too crowded with starlets posing for paparazzi? Did bears eat your tent the last time you went camping? Perhaps the outdoor music concert has lost its appeal? Does Disneyworld give you the creeps? Maybe you’ve already seen the Grand Canyon four times. What are you going do, and where will you go to do it? Here’s a crazy idea for you: Go see some Big Art! Most Big Art in America is called “installation” or “land art,” but I’m not writing about the highbrow sculptures in front of corporate offices that we all ignore, oh no. I’m writing about lowbrow, cheesy-fun, borderline kitsch, land art installations featuring cars. “Automotive Art.” The American love affair with bigness and the automobile has inspired some artists to use the car as both subject and medium for large-scale outdoor art installations. And this art is much more fun than what you’ll find in some white-cube art gallery where the artworks are obtuse and overpriced. With automotive art you can still play outdoors and you won’t need a docent to explain “meaning.” I’ve visited and photographed the four most famous automotive art installations in America. And you’ve got to slow down to find these places because, at a distance, they can look a lot like junkyards.
Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas
The Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, is the most famous car-art installation in America and a cultural icon. Created in 1974 by two architects and an artist, it consists of junk Cadillac automobiles representing a number of evolutions of the car line from 1949 to 1963, half-buried in a line, nose-first in the ground. Eccentric millionaire and Amarillo resident Stanley Marsh III funded the project and provided the land.
The Cadillac Ranch is visible from the highway at Exit No. 60 off I-40 (Old Route 66) and though located on private land, visiting it (by driving along a frontage road and entering the pasture by walking through an unlocked gate) is encouraged. In addition, writing graffiti or spray-painting the vehicles is also encouraged, and the cars, which have long since lost their original colors, are wildly decorated.
After 20 years in its current location, the Cadillac Ranch is no longer an art installation about cars: Now, it’s all about spray paint. I’m afraid the suburban graffiti artists have totally missed the point.
During my visit, I saw a large crowd and a steady stream of visitors for the whole time I was there. Typically, many in the crowd were climbing on the cars and shooting selfies — you know, the modern record of narcissism that says, “I was here.” But, mostly, all the visitors were carrying shopping bags. Shopping bags full of cans of spray paint. There seems to be a procedure for the average visit to the Cadillac Ranch and it goes like this: Go to the hardware store and buy as many cans of spray paint as you can carry, go to Cadillac Ranch, add your (legal) graffiti to the cars, leave after 20 minutes. At least, that’s what I witnessed. Groups of people go there, spray paint the heck out of the cars, shoot a selfie, and leave in less than a half-hour.
The cars are so thick with paint that they’re hardly shaped like cars anymore. Vaguely auto-shaped blobs of Krylon and Rust-Oleum. And the ground is littered with hundreds and hundreds of empty spray-paint cans.
Although now mainstream, the Cadillac Ranch is an original. It’s an easy-to-find, easy-to-see automotive art installation that’s the prototype for all the rest, so it’s worth a visit. If you’re a photographer trying to get that perfect shot without people, I recommend going at sunrise while the average “touron” is still asleep. Unless you’re Banksy, please leave the damn spray paint at home.
VW Slug-Bug Ranch, Amarillo, Texas
There’s not a lot of information about the VW Slug-Bug Ranch, which is also in Amarillo, Texas, on the far eastern side of town (which is also listed with town names of Panhandle or Conway, Texas). Just leave Interstate 40 at Exit No. 96 and look for the old motel sign on the south side of the highway. I have no idea who the artist was or when this was installed. It’s also unclear who owns this land art installation, but it’s clear this is a parody of the Cadillac Ranch on the other side of town, although with fewer and cheaper cars. Though information is sparse, it is noted that the VW Slug-Bug Ranch is a response to the Cadillac Ranch, which would make it a more recent, post-1974 installation.
There are five VW Bugs, planted in the ground at a nose-down angle similar to the Cadillac Ranch. And, like the Caddies at the Cadillac Ranch, these cars are also covered in spray-painted graffiti. The suburban graffiti artists have attacked this place, too. Obviously these cars were placed here but the place has an overall feel of disuse and abandonment — an unofficial VW Ranch 30 miles from the official Cadillac Ranch Land Art Site, if you will. I spent less than an hour photographing the VW Slug-Bug Ranch and I was the only one there; nobody came around.
To me, the contrast between the VW Slug-Bug Ranch and the Cadillac Ranch makes a socioeconomic artistic statement. You don’t need the rich man’s car for car-art; you can do the same with the poor man’s car. Although not as iconic as the Cadillac Ranch, the VW Slug-Bug Ranch is equally interesting.
Carhenge, Alliance, Neb.
On the plains of Alliance, Neb. is a replica of England’s Stonehenge made from automobiles. It’s called “Carhenge,” and it’s the brainchild of local artist Jim Reinders, who built it in 1987. Thirty-nine automobiles were placed to assume the same proportions as Stonehenge with the circle measuring approximately 96 feet in diameter. Some autos are held upright in 5-foot-deep pits, trunk end down, while other cars are placed to form the arches and welded in place. All are painted gray, reminiscent of the gray stones of England’s Stonehenge. Here, spray painting cars is forbidden.
“Carhenge” was dedicated on the Summer Solstice of 1987. At, first the locals hated “Carhenge,” and some even called it satanic. But its uniqueness, novelty, and unusual components continue to draw the attention of film and television production crews as well as over 60,000 visitors from all over the world each year.
Reinders donated the 10 acres of land where “Carhenge” is located to the Friends of Carhenge, who preserved it till 2013. On October 1, 2013, Friends of Carhenge gifted the site to the citizens of Alliance.
(Any of this look familiar? On Aug. 21, 2017 the moon’s shadow passed directly over Carhenge during the total solar eclipse and plunged a 70 mile wide swath of land into darkness for over two minutes. More than 10,000 visitors, including me, came to Carhenge to witness the astronomical event. Images appeared in multiple issues of 5enses in 2017.)
The International Car Forest of the Last Church, Goldfield, Nev.
The “Car Forest” is the brainchild of Reno artist Chad Sorg and longtime Goldfield resident Mark Rippie. Rippie wanted to create an artists’ playground of junk cars. Sorg was intrigued and moved to Goldfield in 2011 to create the art. More than 40 upended, stacked, and planted rusty junk cars, trucks, and busses protrude from the desert floor covering over a square mile of land on the south side of Goldfield. The whole area looks like cars rained down from the sky and stuck in the ground. Sorg painted most of the vehicles and invited other artists to do the same. Yes, more spray-paint graffiti.
It’s easy to miss the Car Forest while traveling Highway 95 at 65 mph, and unless you know what you’re looking for it’s easy to mistake it for a junkyard even if you do see it. Approaching Goldfield from the south, I found The International Car Forest of the Last Church on the southeastern edge of town. Guessing correctly, I found a dirt road next to a sign that read “The Dinky Diner” that took me to the Car Forest. Even in the harsh light of midday, it’s a pretty cool place. After scouting the location, I returned later in the afternoon for photography.
I spent almost eight hours photographing the place. Conveniently driving the dirt roads from car to car, I only saw one other visitor to The International Car Forest of the Last Church that day, and he only stayed for about 15 minutes shooting photos from his air-conditioned car. There were a lot of bats flying around after dark, but I was mostly alone the whole time, shooting what I wanted and not bothered by anyone — just the way I like it.
“The International Car Forest of the Last Church” is the largest and most obscure of the four major car-art installations in the U.S. The Car Forest covers acres of land and you can drive amongst the 40 cars. Driving around the Car Forest instead of walking means that the graffiti artist-wannabe can carry even more cans of spray paint.
In summation, Americans love cars. If your car quits running, don’t trade it in. Instead, bury it halfway in the ground, wait approximately 24 hours for it to be covered in graffiti, and call it art.
See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.
Tags: Alliance, Amarillo, automotive art, Cadillac Ranch, car art, Carhenge, cars, Dale O'Dell, Goldfield, installation art, kitsch, land art, Nebraska, Nevada, Texas, The International Car Forest of the Last Church, VW Slug-Bug Ranch