Artists behind the wheel, running the red lights

Childhood memories of waving to people from the back of the family station wagon, license-plate games, or carefree road trips. These images may come streaming back to anyone exploring "Surrounding Interiors: Views Inside the Car."

The multimedia exhibit at the Davis Museum at Wellesley (Mass.) College features paintings, sculpture, video, and photography that look at the public and private space of the automobile.

Curator Judith Hoos Fox became intrigued with the subject of cars, the road, and travel after seeing an exhibition in Germany. "The car interior is getting to be like any other interior, like an office or your living room. Children can play their video games and watch movies," she says.

Most of the artwork is from the 1990s, and almost all of the artists are American, with the exception of one each from Ghana and France.

In one corner of the gallery, visitors find a green Mercedes Benz. But it's not just an ordinary car: It's a coffin made in Ghana and it is called "F.A.V. – Favorite After-life Vehicle."

Up for soaking in a tub or relaxing in a "lounge"? Andrea Zittel's "A-Z Escape Vehicles" features two trailers made of steel. One is a soaking tub, actually filled with water and hooked to a circulated system; the other is a luxurious minicar lined with baby-blue velvet. Fresh flowers and soft music create a relaxing mood. "The notion of these is that we're really only comfortable in a vehicle," Ms. Fox says.

In the playful "How to Turn Your Car Inside Out" (1998), Dan Devine has taken a white 1979 Volkswagen Rabbit with brown interior and literally turned everything on the outside inside.

One of the most thought-provoking works is "Sawdy" (1972), by Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz. The mixed-media assemblage includes an actual car door. Through the window, viewers see a disturbing confrontational scene, similar to the Rodney King beating.

"When we are in our car, are we protected from the world outside?" Fox asks. "Or are we really still witnesses?...

"Do we drive on or get out of the car? Or run home and pretend we didn't see it? This really poses a moral question that comes out of the nature of this space."

Through a windshield is the way we see much of the world, says Fox, standing in front of a 1998 photograph of a red car in Cuba that's been wired and taped together. A windshield is "our lens, the frame of our glasses. Life is lived in our cars."

• 'Surrounding Interiors: Views Inside the Car' ends June 9. It travels to the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota Sept. 7 to Jan. 3.

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