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Is This A Great Festival Or What? Soluna Has George Washington’s Custom Hot Rod 14

An explosion in a Cubist car factory: Francisco Moreno’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Photo: courtesy of the artist


It seems the sound of George Washington crossing the Delaware is the chest-rattling rumble of a classic Chevy V8 engine.

Of course, we all know the historic painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, by the German-American artist Emanuel Leutze — currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. General Washington stands heroically, if precariously, in a boat as his army pushes through the frozen Delaware River. It was the most dangerous, amphibious part of Washington’s daring attack on the British garrison in Trenton, New Jersey, late on Christmas Day in 1776.


Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, oil on canvas, 1850.

Fun fact: The Met’s painting — the only surviving version of the three Leutze created — has gone on loan only twice, one of which was to Dallas in the early ’50s.

But back to that 350 cubic inch V8 engine, which was dropped into the stripped-out shell of a Datsun 280 Z sports car, and is almost deafening me. I have to yell at Pablo Moreno to be heard: “That. Thing. Sounds. Awesome.”

He kindly shuts it off.

So why choose the 350 engine — from a Suburban of all things — for the Datsun?

Moreno laughs, “It’s the one we found.”

Meaning, this was a classic scrounge-what-you-can, use-what-you’ve got art project. (A Ford Mustang was the original plan — couldn’t afford one.) Moreno is owner of Tandem Automotive in Fort Worth and found the shell, finagled the engine and transmission, assembled the car. But he’s not the person to ask about what a modified 1975 sports car has to do with Washington Crossing the Delaware? That would be Pablo’s older brother, Francisco Moreno, the idea man behind this automotive version of an epic tableau. The Dallas artist moved here from Mexico in 2007, got his bachelor’s in fine arts from UT-Arlington, then his master’s at the Rhode Island School of Design. Last year, he won a $3,500 grant from the Dallas Museum of Art for his proposed art installation. It would include the car in front of a life-size, 12 foot-high-by-20-foot-wide re-imagining of Leutze’s painting.


Francisco Moreno in front of an incomplete section of Washington Crossing the Delaware. Photo: Jerome Weeks

OK, so why the car?

The heart of Leutze’s painting, Francisco notes, is Washington and his troops “on this boat, this vessel. So I became interested in incorporating some kind of vessel into the project, but a real vessel that was more connected to our everyday routines. I then became fascinated with the idea of incorporating a car.”

Because: America. Because: North Texas. Because: Have you seen our commute times?

So the 280Z is meant to transport Washington directly into our own age. But Moreno’s 280Z doesn’t look like any other 280Z ever made. Francisco painted both the car and Leutze’s famous image using black and white stripes and jagged, fragmented patterns. It looks a little like giant-scale Cubism with a migraine. The style is inspired by what was called dazzle (or razzle dazzle). It was a type of naval camouflage developed  by the British during World War I. Remember, this was before sonar: Dazzle didn’t hide a warship; it merely confused enemy observers trying to target it with their guns by calibrating a ship’s distance and speed.

“It disrupts the profile of the ship,” says Moreno. “And it’s hard to see if it’s turning or which way it’s going. So it’d be difficult to tell how far a ship is just because of the hard-edged abstraction.”

The Cubism reference wasn’t an idle joke: Picasso once claimed his Cubist paintings had inspired dazzle. And it certainly is an irony of history that just as Picasso and Braque were using geometric abstractions to overturn the way people viewed painting, the Admiralty was using it to make their warships’ location and direction difficult to discern.

photo (14)But still, why pick on Leutze’s painting like this? The theme of the Soluna festival, Moreno points out, is ‘Destination America,’ and Washington Crossing the Delaware is not just an American icon; it’s a globally recognized one. Leutze painted it in 1850 to inspire Europeans to unite and rebel against their own kings and emperors. So he made Washington’s army a heroic, idealized cross-section of the new country. There’s an African-American soldier in Washington’s boat, a native American, another man wears a Scottish tam o’ shanter cap.

Moreno wanted to create an artwork, he says, that didn’t specifically reflect his own Mexican background but addressed the wider nature of American identity. So he adapted a British camouflage technique to re-paint a work by a German-American artist that included a Japanese car — and “by working on this with my Mexican brothers, I wanted to do something that highlights the melting pot.”

In fact, the 280Z itself may be Japanese, but inside – Pablo pops the racing hood locks and opens up the engine compartment — inside, it’s another story.

“The engine is from a Suburban,” he notes. “The transmission is from an ’85 Camaro, the filter is from a Mustang. And then wiring up the car: I took all the factory wiring off, and I made my own wiring harness.”

The car is as improvised and stitched-together as the United States. Plus, it’s got Firestone Firehawk tires, and a line-lock — a device for keeping the brakes set on the front wheels but freeing up the rear ones, the better to ‘drift’ (a controlled slide) or pull doughnuts. Needless to say, all this took a lot more than the DMA’s $3,500. Moreno raised another $17,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, and much of his brother’s labor is still coming in gratis.

But this means Moreno’s art installation is also a performance piece. Or a high-performance piece. The car and the painting will be displayed for two weeks in the warehouse at 2900 Bataan Street in West Dallas, a couple blocks from Trinity Groves. Then, for one evening, May 23rd, in front of the painting, the 280Z will do what it was built to do.

Cue the squealing and the smoke. George Washington won’t be battling ice. He’ll burn rubber.