Francisco Moreno Used Car Culture and Abstract Art To Address Cultural Identity

Abstract art and car culture collided Saturday night.EXPAND
Abstract art and car culture collided Saturday night.
Kevin Todora

Three years in the making, Francisco Moreno’s The WCD Project was open to the public as an exhibit on Friday and then fully realized with a 5-minute performance piece on Saturday night at a Trinity Groves warehouse. Part of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's inaugural Soluna Festival, Moreno’s study of cultural identity started with a life-size — give or take a couple inches — recreation of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware painting.

From there, Moreno transformed the painting into an abstract work inspired by dazzle ship camouflage, a pattern of geometric shapes in contrasting colors used in World War I. This type of camouflage seemed to turn ships into abstract paintings, but it did not make them invisible. Once a ship was in motion, the hard edges of dazzle camouflage made it difficult to determine speed, size, and trajectory. The idea was to confuse the enemy when they were trying to get in place to fire at a vessel. Dazzle camouflage was used both by British Admiralty and the U.S. Navy and each ship had its own unique color scheme. This made ships as difficult to classify as cultural identity, to reference a primary theme of this installation.

Applying dazzle camouflage to Washington Crossing the Delaware has a, well, dazzling effect. General Washington and his crew appear to be caught in a cubist storm, splicing the image into a three-dimensional hodgepodge of arms, legs, and heads. But the painting is only half of the project. A 1975 Datsun 280Z with a custom built 1991 Chevrolet 350 V8 engine is painted with the same imagery, as if the reinterpreted painting spilled out onto the car, which is roughly the same size as the boat in the original painting.

Changing the vehicle from a ship to a car has to do with the car culture Moreno grew up surrounded by in Arlington, where a car was representative of a person’s identity. As an artist, this is a subculture he is still passionate about. Car culture may not always be something other artists consider highbrow enough to conceptualize about. But Moreno could care less, and makes wonderful use of his lifelong fascination. By using this idea and working with his brother, who owns Tandem Automotive, Moreno has incorporated his everyday life into his art, which is much more rewarding than working alone with an esoteric idea.

For the first year, Moreno did lots of brainstorming and came up with the concept. Initially hoping to get a grant that would land him a brand new Mustang, he started with the shell of a Datsun his brother gave him. This made the project much more expensive and time consuming, but ultimately worked out for the best. He bought an American engine and paid for it to be installed into the Japanese vehicle. The classic American painting Moreno started with was created by a German immigrant, so an American engine sitting in a Japanese car adds to the theme of cultural identity, which is further emphasized by the use of dazzle camouflage.

An American citizen who moved from Mexico to Texas as a child, this take on the overall theme of cultural identity is personally relevant to Moreno. Dazzle camouflage altered the perception of ships and The WCD Project alters perception of cultural identity. But there are other conceptual elements at play here. Dazzle camouflage is painting for war and Moreno used it to cover a painting about a heroic battle. This fuses two modes of painting: American history storytelling with its tendency to mythologize and the practical aspects of painting something for military use.

After the first year and a half, Moreno had spent thousands out of his own pocket to buy the engine and have it installed in the car. With a grant from the Dallas Museum of Art, Moreno was able to complete the car, adding transmission, suspension and interior. But he still had many other expenses he covered personally. Moreno admits that an offer to buy the work would be hard to turn down if it made his money back. But it isn’t officially for sale. The WCD Project was more about making a mark and giving back to the community.

Moreno started the performance by coming out from behind the enormous painting with a megaphone to express his sincere gratitude to everyone who helped him along the way. After that, his brother, Pablo Moreno, pulled the car out from behind the painting and started building tension by slowly circling around ominously, almost like a shark. The car’s movements were carefully choreographed and the overall tone seemed to be much more menacing than some may have expected. From there, the car activated the dazzle camouflage by kicking into high gear and started doing donuts with the painting as a backdrop. The screech of the tires was intense, almost like bloodcurdling screams. And then it was over.

By all accounts, the performance was an enormous success. Moreno’s friends and family were rushing to congratulate him and spectators gathered around the car and the painting, trying to make sense of what they had just witnessed. Despite the dreadful weather, there was a great turnout for the event. Admission was free and gorgeous posters that many probably would have paid for were passed out at the exit, with attendees being urged to take as many as they like.

Moreno probably could have made a pretty good chunk of change by selling donuts at the event too. But this performance wasn’t about making money. With his megaphone, Moreno made it very clear that the culmination of this long and expensive endeavor was a unique gift to Dallas. 

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