Hell’s Union: Motorcycle Club Cuts As American Folk Art

Rugged beauty, aged character and unified nonconformity characterize the latest exhibit at the UCR/California Museum of Photography. Titled “Hell’s Union: Motorcycle Club Cuts as American Folk Art,” the exhibit showcases artist Jeff Decker’s collection of defunct motorcycle vests, officially known as “cuts.” They range from appealingly grungy to darkly intimidating, and the entire display inspires its observer to appreciate the unique workmanship each cut represents.

As an introductory placard at the beginning of the exhibit explains, the cuts are presented without titles or dates because they weren’t initially designed as art pieces. Instead, each cut represents a particular biker’s club, territory and personality, which are revealed via specific initials, images and details. Although they are not “supposed” to be art, the cuts demand a sense of attention, particularly some of the more memorable displays.

Marred by ragged tears and bits of wayward denim, one of the cuts proudly displays more holes than fabric. Despite its torn appearance, its off-center rocker—the top patch that identifies a biker’s club—clearly reads “Cobras.” An embroidered cobra stands at attention below the rocker. Its golden hood is unfurled and its mouth is pulled back in a two-fanged snarl, and although the cut stands alone, its ghostly owner seems prepared to throw on the vest and join his Cobras in a heartbeat.

A dark denim cut bearing an image of a Hydra rests in its display case. Its bottom patch is frayed around the edges and identifies its territory as Danville, Illinois. It lacks the road-torn look a few of the other cuts boast, but its sweat-waxed appearance and bronze laces around the arm holes conjure up images of long rides under a hot sun surrounded by the rest of the Hydra club. Its rocker says “Dead Prophets,” and its image is a winged skull wearing a wreath of emerald leaves. Upon closer inspection, the wings are impressively detailed, and the skull exhibits beautiful embroidery work. The artistic heft of the patch would be invisible to all but its owner, which may be its biggest appeal: to faceless pedestrians, the skull is simply an image, but to the biker, it is a private mark of individual beauty.

Although the nameless cuts were worn as an emblem of rebellion, viewing them in one space evokes a sense of chaotic unity. They represent different clubs, experiences and bikers, but their similar artistry and echoes of rugged lives mesh together perfectly. And even though they are presented without any indication of title or date, the time period from which each cut is taken is irrelevant; each vest is an example of unified individuality and harsh beauty, and the exhibit is worth visiting.

The California Museum of Photography is open Tuesday – Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., and UCR students receive free admission with their student ID.

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