Kook Kreations -- Rat Fink And Flying Eyeballs: Master Hot-Rod Customizers Ed Roth And Von Dutch Are Focus Of This `Kustom' Exhibit


AROUND OUR WEST SEATTLE neighborhood in the 1950s that was the ultimate hip put-down, an acknowledgement among those of us still too young to drive that we were aware of the hot-rod culture of the older guys we idolized.

Rat Fink, as every male baby-boomer must know, was the signature character of the legendary Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, the brilliant illustrator and car customizer whose radical, outrageous Rat Fink designs were featured in ads for decals, T-shirts and other auto-related ephemera in the back pages of Hot Rodder, Rod and Custom, Car Craft and other hot-rod magazines. Roth was legitimized outside the grease-monkey world when he became the central character in Tom Wolfe's landmark 1965 work of gonzo journalism, "The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby."

Now Roth and his fellow hot-rod master artist and customizer Von Dutch are the subject of a major art exhibit called "Kustom Kulture," opening tonight and continuing through June 4 at the Center on Contemporary Art (COCA), 1309 First Ave.

The exhibit features not only their enduring creations - Von Dutch's most famous image is the flying eyeball - but also works of their artistic progeny, including Robert Williams, best known for his rabidly sexual Coochy Cooty character in Zap Comix, as well as the controversial post-rape scene on the cover of the first Guns N' Roses album, later withdrawn by the band's record company. The show includes about 200 artworks by 43 artists and customizers.

While Roth, now 62 and retired, is the most famous of the genre, the late Von Dutch is the grand master of the form, the one Roth and the rest were inspired by from the early 1950s to the present.

Von Dutch, whose real name was Kenneth Robert Howard and who died in obscurity in 1992 of liver disease, at age 63, is less well-known than Roth because he shunned publicity and refused to have his designs commercialized. While Roth became the idol of most every kid who built plastic model cars in the 1950s and '60s - his designs were widely marketed by Revell - Von Dutch did individual work for well-heeled customers. He painstakingly applied intricate pin-stripe designs and wildly colorful graphics to expensive custom cars, working largely alone in his garage.

The final products were often featured in car magazines, and many of his innovations became almost commonplace. He is credited with first painting vivid red and yellow flames on the nose of customized hot rods.

There is a famous picture of Von Dutch in his heyday, with a spiked crew cut and glaring eyes, looking like a tougher, even paranoid, version of heartthrob Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys (the band whose songs glorified, in addition to surfing, the California car culture). That one picture, reproduced in car magazines over and over again, helped fuel the Von Dutch legend.

According to an article in the November 1993 edition of Artforum, written by Seattle critic Charles Krafft (who also has an interview with Roth in the current issue of Rocket magazine), Von Dutch's youthful good looks soon were ravaged by the alcoholism that finally killed him. Krafft tracked down the elusive Von Dutch in Los Angeles just months before he died and interviewed him. His stories on the artist later provided material for the glowing obituaries that appeared in car magazines when he died.

But Von Dutch lives on in "Kustom Kulture," which features his own paint box (originally his father's), on which he painted his first winged, bloodshot eyeball, as well as a motorcycle he customized, three pistols he hand-crafted (he also made knives) and other works.

Roth is represented by his 1959 "Outlaw" show car, the centerpiece of the exhibit, along with many incarnations of Rat Fink (astride a motorcycle, "hanging ten" on a surfboard) and other works.

The opening, from 8 o'clock to midnight tonight, will feature music by Los Hornets and the Splashdowns, as well as pin-striping and airbrushing demonstrations. Many of the exhibition artists, including Williams, will be present ($5, free to COCA members.)

Daily admission is $3 (free to COCA members); gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The show will be open until 8 p.m. on First Thursdays, with free admission from 6 to 8 p.m. Information: 682-4568. ----------------------------------------------------------------- "Kustom Kulture" events

-- Tomorrow, 3 to 4 p.m., at Fallout, 1506 E. Olive Way - Artist Robert Williams in person.

-- Tomorrow, 7:30 to 9 p.m., at Grand Prix Motors Limited, 1401 12th Ave. (12th and Union) - "Kustom Car & Comix Kulture: Past, Present & Future." A panel discussion with Robert Williams, arts writer Zan Dubin, Fantagraphics Books publisher Gary Groth, collector James Brucker, artist Suzanne Williams, and curator Greg Escalante. $5, $3 for COCA members.

-- April 23, 9 p.m., at COCA - Estrus Records presents the Makers and the Galaxy Trio; $6, $4 for COCA members.

-- May 28, 2 p.m. to midnight, at Fremont Outdoor Cinema (U-Park lot at north end of Fremont Bridge) - Street Rod Rally and Urban Drive-In with "It Came from Outer Space" in 3-D. Rally free; movie, at dusk, $3.

-- June 4, 9 p.m., at COCA - Estrus Records presents Kustom Kulture Klimax with Mono Men and the Del Lagunas. $7, $4 COCA members.