By Daniel McDermon
Four hand-built motorcycles by the Japanese artist Chicara Nagata at the Ippodo Gallery in Chelsea. (Courtesy Ippodo Gallery)
Winter is often downtime for motorcyclists in northern climes, but this month enthusiasts around New York City can indulge in a bit of cold-weather fancy.
From Jan. 16 to 18 the Cycle World International Motorcycle Show will be at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. And on display at the Ippodo Gallery on West 26th Street is the “Liquid Chrome” exhibition, which features four hand-built custom motorcycles by the Japanese artist Chicara Nagata.
Mr. Chicara’s bikes combine vintage engines and drivetrains with frames, suspension and steering components that he manufactures himself. For example, the Chicara Art I Classic — the bikes are named in sequence, up to Art IV Classic — incorporates a 1939 Harley-Davidson engine into an elongated, almost bobber-like steel frame that displays more chrome than a ZZ Top video. The bike won first prize in the Freestyle category at the 2006 AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building.
Mr. Chicara, 46, worked in graphic design for a decade before he began to build custom motorcycles in the early 1990s, with an early focus on American-styled customs built around Harley components. The machines on display at Ippodo, however, represent a turn away from the off-the-rack customs that have become ubiquitous in the United States. The key distinction is in Mr. Chicara’s frame and suspension builds; each bike here relies on a slightly different configuration.
Chicara Art III Classic. (Courtesy Ippodo Gallery)
A close look at the Art III Classic illustrates one approach: the fork connects to the main frame by a flexing linkage that houses a shock absorber. It’s not necessarily a design that would make for peak performance or riding comfort — hard to imagine how it would perform on the street — but that’s beside the point.
Coated in chrome and hand-fashioned parts, including copper and brass fittings, the Chicara machines embody a great deal of motorcycle history, from the engine-strapped-to-a-bicycle models of a century ago, to the chopped, blasted and welded machines that are turned out of custom shops and boutique manufacturers today. The incorporation of midcentury American and Japanese engines is a nice touch, bridging the historic gap between some of the design elements on display.
Mr. Chicara’s works have often been written about as curiosities, and understandably so — they are being offered for sale, with asking prices starting at $1 million (for the Art IV Classic, the smallest and most recent piece on display, which is built with a 1966 Honda moped engine). But setting aside the prices, the bikes are worth our attention because they remind us of something fundamental about motorcycles: the connection between rider and machine. The Art II Classic, in particular, reveals itself as a stripped-down metal frame with a low-slung engine, a rolling rocket with a tiny saddle and short handlebars.
According to the gallery, the bikes are all functional — at least in the sense that the engines will start and propel the bikes forward — although it is unlikely that they’ll ever encounter asphalt. Maybe it would be more appropriate, anyway, for a buyer to build a wooden plank track for these history-straddling machines.
Liquid Chrome, Ippodo Gallery, 521 W. 26th Street, through Jan. 31.
January 8, 2009