Jim Gary’s Junk Yard Animals

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On the 12th of April 1990, Jim Gary (1939 – 2006) opened his exhibition Twentieth Century Dinosaurs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Gary was the only sculptor ever invited to present a solo exhibition at the prestigious museum; he became known for his large, colourful creations of dinosaurs made from discarded automobile parts, hand-welded and finished with industrial paint which was left to naturally corrode in outdoor displays, due to the enormous scale of the works.

Entirely self-taught, Gary scoured the junkyards to produce surprising novel sculptural pieces, mainly animals, perhaps reminiscent of Picasso’s bull’s head made from a bicycle seat and handlebars.“I decided,” Gary said, “to try to get the animals back out of the cars. (…) Old Chryslers made the finest dinosaurs“. In his “surgically precise anatomy, a brake shoe became a foot, an oil pan a jaw, an axle a femur. He turned leaf springs into rib cages and generator fans into huge lash-ringed eyes. For the spinal plates of a stegosaurus, he used part of a garbage truck’s compactor. For its tail spikes, he used Chevrolet shock absorbers. He also built smaller pieces, among them humpbacked turtles that began life as Volkswagen Beetles.” (Margalit Fox, Jim Gary obituary, The New York Times, January 19, 2006).

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There is a sense of revival and recycling in Gary’s art; he was determined to make new ‘life’ from the debris of post-war American consumer culture. “The big, gas-guzzling US sedans of the 1960s and 70s are all but extinct. They had been labelled dinosaurs even before they rumbled, brand new, out of showrooms for the last time. From the early 1970s, Jim Gary, a popular self taught artist, who has died aged 66, put fact and metaphor together: he plundered car scrap yards and used the parts he garnered, from springs and tie-rods to axles and brake shoes, to create his own Jurassic Park of comic and brightly coloured dinosaur skeletons. Automobile oil pans served for faces, while generator fans gave his friendly monsters their characteristic long-lashed eyes. Gary painted the completed skeletons in bright and often lurid colours: 60s and 70s oranges, pinks and purples from cans of authentic automobile paint. Life-sized and weighing not much less than the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous beasts they were loosely modelled on, Gary’s dinosaurs roamed the United States. Ferried on the back of custom-made trailers, they could be seen lumbering along freeways followed by lines of family cars in eager pursuit. Whether on the road, in museums and galleries, at the California Academy of Sciences or entertaining crowds at popular places and events such as racetracks, speedways and the Automobile Dismantlers’ Association of America, Gary’s mobile 20th-Century Dinosaurs show was anything but defunct.”(Andrew Roth, Jim Gary obituary, The Guardian, 14 February 2006).

In W. J. T. Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon (University of Chicago Press, 1998), the cultural historian tried to understand how and why dinosaurs achieved this iconic and totemic status at different points in the past. He found that dinosaurs have become close in mythical status to the miner’s canary and the Trojan horse as “a harbinger and instrument of our destruction”. Mitchell maintained that “the dinosaur is a constructed image”, one that can be used for such diverse purposes as an advertising tool to selling gasoline or promoting socio-biological theories about the origins and timeline of human developmental history. “In the nineteenth century, Mitchell explains, popular fascination with dinosaurs developed51BPDiPBvVL just when American Indians and other indigenous people around the world were threatened with extinction. In the late twentieth century the most recent upsurge in scientific and popular interest in dinosaurs coincides with “an era that combines information science and bio-genetic engineering” into bio-cybernetic threats to the human species as a whole.” (Robert W. Rydell of Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur Book in Isis, Vol. 91, No. 2, Jun., 2000). 

Mitchell says that “much of what the humanist does is very similar to scientific practice”, and this is true of Gary’s gigantic dinosaurs, as he tried and managed to merge the two opposing fields and pointed out the fact that they share a mutual aim to generate new knowledge. Out of the industrial junk came nature and out of nature came art, all mediated by human agency and creative capability.

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