LOS ANGELES -- Lowrider cars these days are far more than tricked-out automobiles with gravity-challenged rear suspensions and ear-rattling exhaust systems that seem to cry out for police to ticket the drivers.

In their finest format, they have morphed into museum-quality works of art, appearing in shows around the world from Paris' Louvre to Washington's Smithsonian.

But while museumgoers have learned to appreciate these creatures that sprang from the garages of American teenagers in the years after World War II, lowrider historian Denise Sandoval says the eye-popping, airbrushed paintings, plush interiors and chrome-plated wheels and engines that have come to define them have quietly fomented something more -- a new genre of contemporary art. It's a genre Sandoval hopes to expose to a wider audience through "The High Art of Riding Low," a wide-ranging exhibition of lowrider-inspired fine art including paintings, sculptures, serigraphs, photographs, drawings and, of course, automobiles created by the world's most accomplished Chicano artists.

The show, which opened Monday and runs until next June, is the third lowrider exhibition that Sandoval, a Chicano studies professor at California State University, Northridge, has curated at Los Angeles' Petersen Automotive Museum since 2000.

Like previous shows, it features its share of some of the finest lowrider cars created, among them Jesse Valadez's "Gypsy Rose," which was encased in glass for display on Washington's National Mall earlier this year when it was inducted into the U.S. Historic Vehicle Register. The long, sleek Chevrolet is bathed in bright pink and covered with intricately painted roses running from front tire to taillight.

Other cars in the L.A. exhibit radiate a rainbow of colors, including some with murals of beautiful women, landscapes and skeletons representing Dia de Muertos, the Latino holiday honoring loved ones who have died.

But placed right alongside these V-8-powered treasures are dozens of paintings and other museum works created by such prominent gallery artists as Gilbert "Magu" Lujan and Frank Romero, who form half of the contemporary art world's Los Four, the first Chicano artists group to have a showing at a major institution, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in 1974.

"Basically we're focused on looking at the lowrider car as both artistic inspiration and art object," says Sandoval, explaining how this show differs from earlier ones. "We're taking artists from the museum gallery world and merging them with lowrider artists. So we're bringing these two worlds together."

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