Of Choppers and Chiaroscuro

Masters of the thriving genre of Harley art, David Uhl and Scott Jacobs depict life high on the hog

Apr 26, 2000 at 4:00 am
Rumbling down the road on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, you can feel the wind rushing past your face and the snarling power of the engine between your legs, smell the exhaust and the leather of your riding jacket, hear the belching roar distinctive to the make. A Harley is like a tattoo -- as they say, either you've got one or you don't.

Harley-Davidson has licensed a handful of commercial artists to capture the aforementioned snarling and belching in the form of static art. Two of these artists, David Uhl and Scott Jacobs, have adapted the outlaw-biker image into a somewhat classier motif and created paintings for Harley aficionados. Their works are the focus of a new exhibit at the St. Louis Artists' Guild, Thunder in the Streets...The Motorcycle As an American Icon, co-sponsored by Doc's Harley-Davidson.

A severely abridged history of the American motorcycle casts the vehicle as a novelty that gradually caught on and became a stalwart blue-collar tool for such tasks as newspaper delivery and supporting the buttocks of traffic cops. The bike's cheapness appealed to a generation of spirited young WW II vets, who hopped on for nomadic jaunts down newly paved highways. Enter a rebellious image fueled by a few ruffians, a hyperbolic press, Marlon Brando as The Wild One and riding clubs such as the Hell's Angels. Easy Rider added a touch of the cowboy to the package, Malcolm Forbes and the yuppie crowd slummed it up on two wheels and gentrified the vehicle, and now we entertain the national pastime: waxing nostalgic, in this case for those thrilling days of yesteryear, Harley-style.

This brings us to the artwork of David Uhl. The painter's specialty is combing the Harley archives for charming pictures of bikes and their riders from decades past, combining these old images into an imagined scene and executing it in vibrant color. For instance, he has painted an imagined race between a locomotive, a stagecoach pulled by four horses and a Harley with sidecar. He created "Missed You Two," in which a sailor returns from duty and kisses his long-pining gal on the boardwalk, all the while keeping his eyes on the primary object of his affection, his Harley, which a buddy has thoughtfully brought to the dock. His moody "Summer of '27" depicts a serene glen in which two couples have rendezvoused under a bower for a lazy picnic, which they enjoy as the Harleys with sidecars that brought them cool in the foreground.

The preceding is a long way from the Easyriders magazine pinup of a chesty gal dangling her assets over a chopper with Willie Nelson's face airbrushed on the gas tank. This was the typical exponent of "motorcycle art" before guys like Uhl came along.

"I'm actually going more toward a romantic period in time, something that brings back a little bit of an older period, out of memory or something your grandmother or grandfather was talking about," the Denver-based Uhl explains. "The majority of times when I'm painting, I'm trying to make a visual statement about a romantic period in history when motorcycling was a little bit more of a -- I don't know -- people used it as really some brand-new fun medium."

Scott Jacobs is centered more on the modern state of the Harley. His photorealistic paintings of motorcycles at rest feature chrome effects that are somehow as shiny as the real thing. A partner takes a series of photographs of a classic bike, which Jacobs then uses as reference to produce his work. As far as the small band of professional artists who specialize in motorcycle art goes, Jacobs is considered the reigning king. His renderings of Harleys appear on T-shirts, collector plates, puzzles, stationery, address books, beer steins, calendars and clocks. Celebrities clamor for his paintings and commission him to capture their own bikes.

Jacobs got his start in the art world as a gallery owner. He says he solicited the opinions of those who visited his place and elected to begin painting in order to create the kinds of pieces that people said they wanted to buy.

"The more photorealistic I got, the more people appreciated it," says Jacobs from his Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., home. "That's why I went to that style of painting."

His commercial approach paid off, and he wound up the first artist officially licensed by Harley to create art featuring the company's bikes. He is also licensed by Chevrolet to paint Corvettes and by Hot Wheels to paint images of NASCAR driver Kyle Petty, who races with the toy-car company's sponsorship.

Jacobs' notable Harley pieces include "Reflections on Canvas," which features a closeup of a bike seemingly made of nothing but chrome, with a desert scene reflected in the hardware. "Evolution" is certainly his corniest endeavor, in which a caveman in a furry smock chips away at a boulder to carve out -- what else? -- a Harley. One biker, claiming to be Jacobs' biggest fan, approached him at a motorcycle festival and raised his shirt to reveal a full-back tattoo of this painting. "You are my biggest fan," Jacobs recalls agreeing with this dedicated fellow.

Thunder in the Streets begins with a gala opening called "Black Tie, Black Leather," which includes the artists signing prints of their paintings, live jazz, a catered meal, more motorcycle art by St. Louis-based creators, biker memorabilia and a bunch of motorcycles. The 12 or so bikes on display will include several classic Harleys, as well as a group of Indian-brand motorcycles manufactured in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Foreign-auto-garage owner and amateur car racer Reid Vann is lending these gorgeous cycles for the occasion.

How do we reconcile the image of the beer-swilling biker sporting a ZZ Top beard with that of the celebrity millionaire who plunks down $25,000 to hang a Uhl or Jacobs original above the mantel? They're looking for the same thing: a rebellious, snarling engine surrounded by beautiful bike.

Thunder in the Streets ... The Motorcycle as an American Icon is on view at the St. Louis Artists' Guild, 2 Oak Knoll Park, April 30-June 6. The opening party "Black Tie, Black Leather" begins at 6:30 p.m. April 29. An additional opening reception takes place from 1-3 p.m. April 30. Call 727-6266 for tickets or more information.