Review: Steel Ponies at the Eiteljorg 

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click to enlarge The Orange County Choppers team created this bike for the Chippewa Tribe of Saginaw.
  • The Orange County Choppers team created this bike for the Chippewa Tribe of Saginaw.

You don’t have to ride a motorcycle to understand the hold these machines have on the American imagination. With this in mind, White Wolf James — the Eiteljorg’s assistant curator of Native American art, history and culture — has assembled a handsome array of 23 iconic cycles, dating back to a 1902 Indian Camelback, a ride that looks more like a bicycle with a motor attached than today’s thunderous hogs.

With a few notable exceptions (a gleaming four-cylinder Pierce, for example), this exhibition focuses on the tit-for-tat competition between Indian and Harley-Davidson brands that ran throughout the better part of the 20th century, until the original Indian company — at one time, the largest maker of motorcycles in the world — went bankrupt in 1954.

If Steel Ponies is any indication, it appears Indian was often first with new improvements, only to be trumped by Harley-Davidson a year or two later. Be that as it may, the design savvy both companies brought to bear upon their bikes is in abundant display here, as are the more recent efforts of contemporary customizers like Daniel Sanchez, Troy Vargas and Paul Teutul, Sr.

There are also signature pieces from pop culture in the show, including Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider and Wild Angels bikes, and one of Evel Knievel’s daredevil mounts. The show is accented by ledger drawings by Jim Yellowhawk, large-scale photographs, supplementary photobooks and video. Through August 5 at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.

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