By Jeff Huebner

Pedestrians and drivers do double takes when artist Alan Bolle gets behind the wheel of his Spring Car, a 1976 BMW whose exterior is fitted with, by Bolle’s count, 2,261 coiled metal springs ranging in height from a quarter-inch to three feet. People drop jaws, point, and laugh. Bolle smiles and waves back, often rolling down his window to exclaim, “It’s springtime!”

But to get the full effect, Bolle says, you have to rough it–he knows just the place. He turns from North onto Magnolia, a rutted industrial track along the North Branch of the Chicago River. As the car–and driver–bounces up and down, the springs joggle against the body and each other in a boingy racket. That’s music to Bolle’s ears. He calls it “a cacophonic symphony of vibrating springs.”

Bolle, 39, never thought he’d own a car because he’s lived in big cities all of his life. He grew up in Providence, where he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and later received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Trained as a painter, Bolle began creating detritus-filled assemblages and mixed-media paintings soon after moving to Chicago in 1984.

“I used to ride my bike around,” he says, “and see fragments and shards that I could pick up and use like a mosaicist would use tiles–strange and unrecognizable objects that I could recollage and fit together in a pictorial manner. Then [a piece] would become something else, like modern alchemy.” He says he was “trying to find some natural qualities about our prefab world.”

Bicycling caused Bolle to dislike automobiles. “I was continually irritated by cars,” he says. “I didn’t have much respect for them.” Yet, by 1994 he had capitulated to the culture, buying a 1961 Rambler for $250. A year later, he was sitting in a bar with his friend Bill Harding, an artist and musician who goes by the name of Gene Pool. Pool had covered his own car with live grass. “He ribbed me about making an art car,” says Bolle. “I thought it was a foolish, trite, fetishistic idea–it wasn’t high art.” But he began having second thoughts when the bartender offered him a 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit–free. “He was fed up with the car and wanted to get rid of it.

“I thought, ‘What could most change the notion of a car?'” Bolle says. Springs sprang to mind. He bought hundreds of them, in various shapes and sizes, from American Science and Surplus and Reusable Usables. Using heavy-duty jeweler’s glue, Bolle affixed springs to the hood, roof, trunk, and sides of the Rabbit. He topped some of the more flexible ones with bits of street debris to make them move more rapidly and create more noise.

“Springs have a theatrical, circuslike quality, and they further animate the idea of a car in motion,” says Bolle. The car “illustrates the dichotomy between a man-made object–a moving geometric form–and gestures found in nature, like a branch or a bush moving in the wind. You’re transposing the idea of ‘carness’ into a moving sculpture.”

When the Rabbit succumbed to rust in the fall of 1996, Bolle removed many of the springs and reattached them onto the body of the 1976 BMW 2002 he bought last summer. “After I saw the response from the first Spring Car, it made me want to keep the medium going,” says Bolle, adding that he’s always replacing springs that people rip off. (The Rabbit’s hood, with springs intact, hangs in his studio.)

Bolle, who occasionally works as a scenic artist and art installer, is now an active member of the “art car” subculture. Some scholars have traced this phenomenon to the California custom-car movement of the 1950s and ’60s, yet that comparison may be too facile. Most of the artists’ “improvements” have no practical application. They customize vehicles with corks, dolls, cameras, sequins, and a wide range of other materials. Over the last two years, Bolle and his springed vehicles have participated in art-car parades in Chicago and Minneapolis, the Houston Art Car Ball, and the Artcar WestFest, a parade and exhibition in San Francisco. At such gatherings, Bolle got to know art-car czars like Harrod Blank, whose 1992 documentary Wild Wheels introduced many people to the world of art cars.

“Cars are championed as chariots of self-representation by their owners,” says Bolle. “Supposedly your self, your ego, is tied up in your car. But most American cars are pretty unrecognizable. An art car really is a creation by its owner.”

This Friday night, from 5 to 9, Bolle will host an opening reception for a new exhibit of his work at a downtown restaurant, Caffe Baci. Billed as an “alternate auto show” to coincide with the annual affair at McCormick Place this week, the exhibit will include recent found-object paintings and assemblages (like “spring hats”) and photographs of art cars from around the country. A recording of Bolle’s own car in action, created by sound artist Laura Herman, will be played, “so at least you’ll have the sensation of what it’s like riding around in the car.” Bolle will also screen Blank’s new art-car documentary, Driving the Dream. The exhibit will remain up through February 27.

Bolle had planned to also exhibit the Spring Car inside the restaurant, but the BMW “just barely would’ve fit through the doors of the Donnelly Building–and I would’ve had to have taken the springs off. The management company was not into removing the doors.” Alas, the car will be parked outside. Bolle still thinks of what might have been. “People would’ve had great fun plucking the car.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alan Bolle photo by Jim Alexander Newberry; art car photo by Steven E. Gross.