To a lot of people lowriders–the dropped down, tricked out, chrome plated custom cars that cruise the city’s neighborhoods–are a nuisance or a curiosity. But to Jesus Macarena-Avila, curator of a multimedia exhibit inspired by lowriders that opens this weekend, they’re a vital form of artistic expression. “To me, lowrider culture is like hip-hop,” he says. “When you’re part of the marginalized and oppressed, you get creative.”

Macarena-Avila grew up in the Texas Gulf, where every other kid seemed to have a souped-up Chevy, and got his start as an artist decorating cakes and making bread sculptures at his parents’ Mexican bakery. In his late teens he dropped out of high school and came here to live with relatives in Edgewater. “When I got to Chicago everyone was like, you have to join a gang, and I was like, ‘Oh my God! I don’t want to be in a gang, I want to be an artist.'”

He got his GED and enrolled at the School of the Art Institute but found art school difficult. “I was just bombarded with this Eurocentrism, and as an artist that’s when my work started addressing identity politics,” he says. “Why am I feeling like this? Why am I feeling displaced? Other students and teachers were looking at me like, ‘Whoa. This guy’s too militant for me,’ but I wasn’t. I was just trying to find my place.”

In 1996, while still at SAIC, Macarena-Avila met Elvia Rodriguez-Ochoa and Miguel Cortez at a graphic arts workshop in Pilsen. They started discussing their frustration with Chicago’s balkanized art scene. “We didn’t feel we fit into the mainstream River North, River West gallery scene because we were Latino,” says Rodriguez-Ochoa, “and yet our artwork didn’t fit into what traditional ‘Latino’ artwork should look like because all three of us had been exposed to art school.”

The trio joined forces to found a collective called Polvo–Spanish for “dust.” They published a zine that featured artwork, poetry in both Spanish and English, and political essays on topics such as the status of Puerto Rican prisoners incarcerated in the States, and launched a Web site that brought foreign artists into the group. In 1999 they scraped together enough money to open a gallery on Cullerton and Damen in Pilsen, where they mounted a show titled “Aren’t We There Yet? Art for the Next Millennium,” but the space closed after eight months. This February, however, they rented space on 18th Street for a show called “Terrorist Art: Protesting War,” and last month Polvo moved two blocks down the street to yet a third gallery. They’ve also recently opened an annex in Humboldt Park at 1303 N. Maplewood.

For “Low Rider Show,” the first in the new Pilsen space, Macarena-Avila invited an eclectic group of artists to investigate the “folk tradition of lowrider aesthetics.” The show includes work such as Liza Grobler’s mixed-media rearview-mirror ornaments and Tania Kupczak’s Tailgate Panty #1, secondhand women’s underwear printed with a sexy image taken from a car’s tailgate that’s a sly comment on the bikini-clad models that accompany every car in the pages of Lowrider magazine.

Macarena-Avila has also enlisted Pedro Cisneros, president of the Chicago chapter of the Amistad Car Club (and a distant relative by marriage) to cruise the group’s custom rides through Pilsen as part of the community arts organization Pros Arts Studio’s 25th-anniversary parade.

“You know I’m not really too much into the art scene,” says Cisneros, who grew up in the same small Texas town as Macarena-Avila and once had a summer job at his parents’ bakery. “But I do consider myself an artist. A lowrider is an expression of what’s going on inside the owner. But, you know, it’s an acquired taste.”

The parade starts at 10 AM from Dvorak Park, 1119 W. Cullerton. “Low Rider Show” opens Friday, September 26, and runs through October 26 at Polvo Art Studio, 1458 W. 18th, #2F. There’ll be a free reception Friday from 6 to 10 PM, and the gallery will be open Saturday, September 27, from 1 to 6. Regular gallery hours are Saturdays from noon to 6 or by appointment; call 773-677-1914 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.