Squeezing Lemons to Make Art

Article in the Washington Post, 16 July 1995.

Somewhere in the Archive of Lousy Ideas, along with Stalinism and McRibs, is the Yugo. It was a car -- in a manner of speaking -- that appeared to be based on a crayon drawing from someone's refrigerator door. Crude, flimsy and uncomfortable, the Yugo was pitched as a sensible, affordable approach to transportation, and was introduced to the American market just as the Gilded '80s reached their peak. The Edsel was a smash compared with the Yugo, and by the early '90s Yugo was bust.

Unfortunately, the ugly little things weren't biodegradable, so thousands of them still exist in junkyards and garages around the country. When Kevin O'Callaghan decided to buy a bunch not long ago -- "Yugos Wanted: Dead or Alive," said his classifed ad -- he was inundated with calls.

Given that no one wants one Yugo, why did O'Callaghan want more than 30? He's an artist, of course. A very funny artist, a professor of three-dimensional design at New York's School of Visual Arts and curator of "Yugo Next," an exhibition showing here at Union Station.

O'Callaghan invited his current and former students to propose new uses for old Yugos. Twenty-eight of his proteges delivered, covering their costs entirely themselves. Former Yugos from the former Yugoslavia fill the concourses and corridors of the magnificent train station in a variety of hilarious guises: slot machine, fireplace, porta-potty, shower stall, piano, mailbox, confessional, cigarette lighter, arcade game and so on.

The concept is a littly tricky for adults passing through the station. "What, are you trying to sell cars?" one asks. But kids get it immediately, rushing from one to the next. "A fireplace car!" "Look, it's a movie theater!" Kids immediately understand everything but the "Do Not Touch signs.

Children's imaginations are right up on the surface -- this is what we mean when we say artists are childlike. An adult looks at a Yugo and sees a crummy car. Sculptor Joe Vitale looked at his Yugo "and right away I saw that all I had to do was stand that thing on end and put a nose on it, and I'd have an Easter Island head."

Piera Digiulo, who teaches art in New Jersey, accepted the Yugo challenge and sat down in her kitchen to think. Her idea -- to convert a car into a toaster, complete with glowing red coils and giant bread slices emerging through the roof -- "just popped up."

Once the grown-ups get the hang of this exhibition, however, they love it. You don't always see a lot of smiles at a transportation depot; it's hard not to smile, though, when peering into Harlan Silverstein's Yugo, which he has transformed into a portable toilet, complete with plastic throne, ventilation pipe and industrial green paint job. The steering wheel serves as the toilet paper holder.

It's hard not to smile at the rustic stone hearth by David Hughes. this Yugo is poised on its nose and covered in fieldstone, with a fire glowing in the engine compartment, an old billiards trophy on the mantel and a deer head mounted at the top.

Or the giant beige telephone. This Scott Lesiak creation is the favorite of Ottiviana Morris, a self-employed Marylander who works in the District. Morris knows a lot about Yugos, because he bought one for $50 a few years back and commuted in it for 35,000 miles up and down I-270.

"It's a great idea," he says of the show, "because they sure weren't safe on the road. The only problem with the Yugo was the frame: There wasn't any."

Richard Awad, co-curator of the project, watches people stop, stare and smile at the creations from a desk at one edge of Union Station's great main hall. He made his Yugo into a diner, with a neon sign overhead that says "Hugo's," only the H and S are burned out, leaving UGO.

"You know how to double the value of your Yugo?" he asks laconically. "Fill the tank."

For a couple hundred years, artists and teachers and critics have emphasized the lecturing, elevating, admonishing aspect of art, which for a lot of people puts art in a class with sit-ups and bran. But here's this silly little car that Jude Dominique has covered with light-blue tile. The roof has a hole in it, and the interior has sprouted a showerhead. Through fogged-up windows you can make out the shower curtain, and there's a toothbrush holder where the rear-view mirror used to be.

There's a book on the desk for comments, and by the second day of the exhibit -- which continues until July 30 -- it is already full of praise. People give their names and addresses and write things like "Amazing!" "Terrific!" "Fantastic!" "So creative!"

"Better than a lot of the stuff at the Hirshhorn," reads one entry.

And another "WOW! (And I loathe art in general.)"


-- David Von Drehle

Tom Magliery