The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Tuesday, August 2, 2011

-- The baddest, most brilliant Trans-Am ever rolls into the National Gallery of Canada --

“It crawled along the boulevard, with two wheels on the grass, that old Trans Am was dying hard, but still had lots of gas.”

So wrote Neil Young in his song Trans-Am, from 1994, just a few months after the National Gallery of Canada acquired a Trans-Am of its own, and one most lyrical.

It’s called Apocalypse Trans-Am 2, by the Toronto artist John Scott, and it’s on display at the gallery for the first time in more than four years. I happened upon it in the contemporary galleries on Canada Day, while strolling with an artist friend, and it was a revelation. Literally.

The entire exterior of the car is covered in the text of the Book of Revelation, every fire-and-brimstone word of it scratched into the paint in letters about an inch high. Only on the back license plate area are the letters larger: “Ex Nihil,” it says in Latin, or “out of nothing.” Indeed.

John Scott has taken two things that have nothing to do with one another and made them into something fantastic and profound and even ­- dare I say about serious art – fun. Where else will you see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse written onto a muscle car, a vehicle built for horsepower?

“Somebody scratched the entire Book of Apocalypse onto a Trans-Am,” says gallery director Marc Mayer, a self-declared “huge fan” of the piece, in a recent interview. “Just the idea of it, without even seeing it, is kind of mind blowing.”

To think that it almost never was. When a curator from the National Gallery visited Scott’s studio in 1993 and discussed the idea of buying the car for the permanent collection, Scott had a sad reply: “You’re too late.” The Apocalypse Trans-Am had been scrapped.

“The first one just rotted away, because nobody gave a shit about it,” Scott says in a phone interview, from the Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto. “It went to the scrapyard and it became a square. I was going to keep the square but it weighed about 2,000 or 3,000 pounds.”

Scott had originally made the piece in 1983, and believed it was the best work he’d done as an artist, but he couldn’t find a buyer, nor even a gallery that would take it as gift. It was a dark time in his career, he says, when he was “stomped on quite thoroughly critically.” I ask him if his Trans-Am was harshly criticized. He says it was “harshly ignored.” After several years he had no choice but to send it to the crusher. “It broke my heart,” he says.

But like that old Trans-Am in the Neil Young song, Scott’s idea still had lots of gas. He proposed to the National Gallery that he do another apocalyptic Trans-Am, and he set to work resurrecting his best work.

“The first one took me about two weeks,” he says. “I did it all myself. I did a lot of drugs and worked around the clock. The second one, I had help, and it took me about five weeks.”

Why did it take longer with helpers?

“Because they were just fuck ups,” he says, with typical candour. “What I had to restrain people from doing was writing their own poetry into the car. They would start writing their own stupid verse into the car. You explain to them that, ‘No, it’s a sacred text. It’s all one piece. You can’t improvise on the Old Testament’.”

I try to avoid explicitly saying in reviews whether I personally like or dislike any piece of art – its the reader’s opinion that matters, not mine – yet I must say that I love Apocalypse Trans-Am 2 in every way. I love the idea, I love the execution, and most of all I love its broad accessibility as a work of art. Like Maman, the giant spider by Louise Bourgeois that stands sentinel outside of the gallery’s main doors, the Trans-Am is a brilliant piece of art that most anybody can love, even if they don’t recognize it as art at all.

Apocalypse Trans-Am 2 will be on display until next March at the National Gallery of Canada.

Review by Peter Simpson for the Ottawa Citizen.