The symbol of the car at first was just a car to me, but it became a coffin, a boudoir, a phallus. The cars do this sexy hydraulic hopping. They have these plush velvet interiors and wonderful imagery on the outside. I put the color photographs into a red velvet portfolio box lined with silver metallic paper and tied it with satin dice. It was important to me to contain them, especially in a sensual manner, because the cars themselves are containers of so many religious and sexual images. This was the first time I used materials to convey certain ideas. – Meridel Rubenstein, interview with John Bloom on December 15, 1987
Meridel Rubenstein began creating this series of portraits of “Lowriders” in northern New Mexico in 1979, following her first major series, La Gente de la Luz, a series of environmental portraits of New Mexicans from the mid-1970s. The Lowriders series was her first major work in color. Descendants of the “cruisers” of the 1950s, the Lowriders are notorious for driving through the streets in small Southwest towns at slow speeds and causing traffic jams. The Lowriders cut and chop the frames of their brightly painted vintage cars, creating highly personal works of art adorned with small murals, messages, and religious symbols. Some of the cars have an elaborate multi-battery powered hydraulic system which raises and lowers the front and rear ends of the vehicle. Originally exhibited with the cars as an “extended portrait” on Santa Fe’s main plaza on October 19, 1980, the photographs were later printed as a series of twelve for a limited-edition portfolio box.
Rubenstein was inspired by the lowriders’ use of materials which create something sensual from something technological, and began her own experiments, making palladium prints on hand-coated watercolor paper. Quickly departing from the straight-forward documentary projects and environmental portraits that established her reputation, Rubenstein’s later work explores a variety of media, use of text, alternative processes, and sculpture, yet the themes of these pieces still tend to connect uniquely to New Mexico.
Meridel Rubenstein was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1948. She completed a bachelor’s degree in social science, with a film-making emphasis, at Sara Lawrence College (1970). While working on motion picture projects in Vermont, she began still photography in 1971. Minor White accepted her as a special Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student in photography for 1972-1973, where he introduced her to the large-format view camera before helping her to enroll in the photography program at the University of New Mexico where she completed an MA (1974) and an MFA (1977). She is the recipient of four National Endowment for the Arts grants (1978) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1981). (MoCP)