Common Wheels

Sylvie Fleury Puts Women In The Driver's Seat With 'She-Devils On Wheels.'

EVER GO INTO the garage where your car's being worked on? There's no place quite like it: the tires stacked up, the oil barrels, the hubcaps on the wall, the shelves of exotic car-care products, the battered metal desk, the girlie pinups.

Over at Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art, Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury has re-created the greasy garage office, but without the grease. Almost everything's there: the tires, the barrels bedecked with stern warnings of hazardous materials, the gooey car products, the flyers announcing championship drag racing dates and hot-rod association meetings, the car mags. She's even got the tire smell. But the walls are pristine, all gallery white, and the floors smooth concrete and free of oil stains.

This is auto garage as art, or maybe art as auto garage.

This installation has nothing handmade, unless you count the sign painted directly onto the gallery wall and the elbow grease gallery owner Cherry applied to the 18 hubcaps before hanging them artistically on the wall, each of them as different in design from the other as snowflakes. Fleury's thing here is taking everyday, factory-made objects, and isolating them from their usual environment. The stuff she's collected is a lot like what you'll see on Grant Road the minute you step outside the gallery, but on Grant you'll tune it out as so much visual noise.

Inside the gallery, you pay attention.

The stacks of tires -- dozens of them -- and oil barrels in assorted colors frame the space. Sheltered by their rubber and steel are the sultry posters of cars, posed naughtily at odd angles and the erotically packaged car products. Bottled in warm colors like red and yellow, these curvy bottles have names like Dura Lube and Hot Shine Hot Waxing System, and even Gunk: Foamy Engine Brite. Then there are the manly tools and the machismo of having hazardous wastes about.

A video running on a TV monitor shows highlights of Fleury's field trip to the Bondurant car racing academy in Phoenix. A vast swathe of dusty desert is covered with blacktop at this place, and school race cars in school-bus colors tool around the tracks, palm trees swaying overhead. One can just imagine how cool and vernacular-American this kind of thing must seem to somebody who lives in the Alps.

A hot Swiss artist and all-around cool gal, Fleury has been working the pop-culture jag for some time.

"She's really into science fiction and old B movies," Cherry explains, sitting behind the desk in the boss man's seat, the place where your astronomical car repair bills are typically totaled. "She did a car-wash series before."

Fleury has set up this installation several times before, but it's the Tucson version that will cruise the country. Known for sculptures of rockets in lipstick colors and for faux-fur fabric swatches that mimic wall paintings, Fleury here has done more than just highlight a strangely erotic subculture. She's a Grrrl, and she's taken over this male space and made it female.

She calls her installation She-Devils on Wheels, the same name she gives her car club. Forget the derogatory old term of "woman driver." We're she-devils now, and we can join Fleury's new club for a buck. Making the world of cars welcoming to women may not be top on every feminist artist's checklist, but Fleury has made the task hers. She's a hot driver herself, according to Cherry, and owns "two really cool cars. She has a '64 Thunderbird and a '72 Cougar. She drives them around Geneva, and fast."

Fleury's driving style may be flamboyant, but her female appropriation of the male garage space is subtle. She's tamed the traditional garage pinup by replacing her with an innocuous Hawaiian hula doll, and she's planted a spiked heel on a shelf full of sensuously packaged car goods. Her she-devil bumper stickers and she-devil T-shirts, printed in black, pink and orange, have nudged out greasy coveralls. And of course there are no condescending male mechanics snorting down at you. That's about it.

She-Devils on Wheels veers away from a serious examination of gender roles. It's more a playful invitation to join the club. Fleury lopes around the race car track in her Phoenix video, making herself an actor in the installation, and she's inviting other women to come on down to the raceway too.

Like it or not, Tucson is a city where the car is now king, and there's a kind of poetic justice in having tires make tracks into our cultural shrines. Fleury doesn't downshift for a minute to look more closely at whether all these cars are good for us, or for cities, or for the land. She's more interested in a joy ride, but that's OK. Sometimes a joy ride is just the ticket. She-Devils isn't the kind of art we're used to out here in the boonies, either, but give Cherry credit for taking us where we've never been before.

She-Devils on Wheels continues through April 15 at Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art, 441 E. Grant Road. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and by appointment. For more information, call 903-0577 or visit