Now Showing | Primp My Ride
“Bespoke,” an exhibition that opens today and runs through July 29 at P.J.S. Exhibitions in New York, features the work of Michael Christian Cole, a Long Island motorcycle artist who is known as Copper Mike (for his use of polished copper), and who brings a persnickety and attuned fashion sensibility to the rough and tough culture of custom Harleys.
Cole builds one-off “bobber” motorcycles whose vintage-looking profile includes no front fender and a shortened or bobbed rear one, but not the extreme, elongated fork-and-slouched-back ride of, say, Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider.” In biker-shop slang: Copper Mike fabs up bobbers, not choppers. The mechanical platform is mostly Harley-Davidson parts, with engines known as shovelheads or knuckle-heads, but virtually every other component and detail is either appropriated junk or custom parts that are hammered, cast, plated, tooled, dyed, blown, encrusted, stitched, engraved, patinated and rusticated by Cole and his team of artisans in New York and Los Angeles.
Flea markets provide an array of oddball stuff that Cole stockpiles for adaptive reuse. He turned a cast bronze doorknob from a public school in Brooklyn into a clutch handle. He sliced a copper fire extinguisher in half lengthwise, then cut sections and joined them like the shell of a lobster’s tail to form a rear fender. He takes surprising found objects and encrusts and layers them with sparkling metal plate or lacquer finishes.
Cole explains that his motorcycles, festooned with details like spiked and grommeted triangular leather chaps on the spokes, can cost between $90,000 and $200,000, and are collected by tycoons and sports stars. He exhibits them not just on the annual circuit of trade and biker club shows in Myrtle Beach. S.C., and Daytona, Fla., but also in Monaco, Grimaud and St. Tropez.
His fans include Lady Gaga, who looked at home as she preened and posed with his Precious Metal bike in publicity photos for the May 24 release of her album “Born This Way,” working it until 3:30 a.m. at the Best Buy store on Union Square. The Lady Gaga bike, which is included in the P.J.S. show, features platinum leaf, 14-karat gold and polished copper, Cole’s signature material. In a reassuring nod to his manager-girlfriend, Deborah Sterling, Cole said with a sniff that “a real biker chick” rides directly on the bobbed rear fender, not with the sissy bar backrest that he grudgingly added to the Lady Gaga bike at the request of her styling and production team. “The sissy bar hurt my eyes,” he said.
Cole’s father worked in the fashion industry, manufacturing women’s swimsuits, and encouraged his son to study patternmaking. Cole studied at F.I.T. but segued to high-end fashion and beauty retail design and construction, building stores and installations across the country for Giorgio Armani, Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder before turning to motorcycles. The tattoos-and-fistfights vibe in Cole’s work is balanced by a fashion designer’s quest for a cohesive collection and fastidious nuance. In the surprisingly tidy Long Island cabinet and machine shop that he shares with his brother, an interiors contractor, Cole can talk for hours about the extreme undersides of things and over-the-top, jewelry-like details: for example, a gas tank with a leopard-skin bottom, or a blown glass “suicide clutch” handle. He’s upfront and matter-of-fact, and his girlfriend nods affirmatively at his account of carefully measuring her “bee-hind” when he tailored the bobbed fender and its supporting struts for their own bike, which was named Daddy’s Caddy. Cole’s instinct for artistic collaboration extends to the trailer that his team uses to haul bikes across the country. After he designed and painted it to mimic a New York subway car, he commissioned two Brooklyn graffiti artists who brought their “milk crates filled with rattle cans of color” to tag it with his company name, Gravesend.
Storytelling and larger-than-life themes characterize Cole’s work. A bike that he built for Ross Pantano, the owner of Sin Vitality Drink, depicts the Seven Deadly Sins, including an on/off toggle switch for “Lust” and a gas cap that is tagged “Gluttony.” Fashion and art on wheels, Cole’s bikes also embody an eighth sin: they appear to be wicked fast. After a long interview and a studio tour on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Cole kick-started a bike, revved it into gear with a deafening roar and shot like a cannonball down a Lindenhurst side street, a blur of sparkling glass, polished copper, tooled leather and a metallic lacquer finish that perfectly matched the oxblood color of his John Varvatos lace-up work boots.