Downtown L.A. art that's less — and more — than it appears

A street artist brings a heavy dose of irony and new interpretations to some tattered corners of downtown Los Angeles.

Four straight rows of four palm trees each stand on the northeast corner of 2nd and Spring streets downtown — a block from Los Angeles City Hall, right alongside LAPD headquarters.

They're directly across from the newsroom. I stare out at them from my desk.

Lately they have come to look like hourglasses running out of time.

Small tufts of green fronds reach to the sky. Ample brown ones drag down toward the dirt.

Will the dead fronds ever be trimmed? Would it make a difference? Are the trees dying?

The questions frustrated me until a couple of weeks ago, when a sign appeared offering an explanation.

It bore the city seal and signatures of the mayor and the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. And it informed me that the palms were an art installation whose bedraggled appearance was intentional.

"Thirsty Palms," it said, had been created by L.A. artist Chris Burden, whose "Urban Light" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art features rows of restored city street lamps.

The palm grove, the sign said, had been "purposely under-watered … in sympathy with all those whose daily existence is a struggle for survival." It was, I read, part of a city program called "Art Appears," "which brings great art to public spaces in Los Angeles … engaging people outside the museum setting."

When I first came upon the sign, I stopped just long enough to read it and think that this edgy public art program might make a good story. So I snapped a photo as a reminder to find out more.

Once back at my desk, I was about to do just that when I burst out laughing instead.

I'd been had, it suddenly hit me, and there had been so many clues, some plain to see in my cellphone snapshot.

The legend read "Thristy Palms," not "Thirsty Palms." "Thristy Palms" and "Urban Light" had nothing more in common with each other than objects aligned in straight rows. The sign also couldn't have been flimsier. On closer examination, it was just a piece of paper laminated in clear plastic and glued onto a plain cardboard box stuck on a thin, unpainted wooden stake.

Still, it had managed not only to fool me but to tilt my perspective. Suddenly everything around me looked off-kilter, ripe with subversive potential.

I started imagining where other ersatz signs might appear. I thought one might go on the tall chain-link fence currently surrounding the new City Hall lawn, replanted at great expense after the wear and tear of Occupy LA. Maybe it might say the fence wasn't a fence at all but a sculpture symbolizing how the 99% are shut out from the lush world of the 1%.

It turned out there were, in fact, other such signs scattered downtown — attributing graffiti on a downtown dumpster to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, and informing the public that a construction site actually was an archaeological dig to remove "a remarkably well-preserved female Pterodactyl skeleton."

"Art Appears" is not a city program. But art of this sort has been appearing all over downtown of late — much of it, signs included, the work of a street artist who calls himself Wild Life and who specializes in the double-take.

The pieces aren't subtle. They're easy to grasp. And their life span usually is short — here one day, gone the next.

Still, to me, they are shape-shifters, which even after they vanish leave traces. They provide an alternate script for downtown, more spontaneous, more mysterious, less staid.

That may be what Wild Life is after. It's hard to know. He makes himself available only through an intermediary, Stephen Zeigler, the owner of 118 Winston, a downtown creative space that hosts art exhibits, yoga classes and other events. I sent Zeigler questions. He sent me responses, which he said Wild Life had dictated to him. (In this world of make-believe, of course, who's to say for sure.)