Artists offer billboard alternatives

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The MAK Center for Art and Architecture has begun to roll out its artist-designed billboard project across Los Angeles. (Taggers have already taken note.) A creative response to the city’s notorious inability to reign in commercial yakking above the urban expanse, ‘How Many Billboards? Art In Stead’ will number 21 by the time March comes around. Five are up now.

Among the best is Kori Newkirk’s wonderfully ambiguous image across from the south edge of Lafayette Park, on Wilshire Boulevard between Hoover Street and Commonwealth Avenue. Against a white field, the close-up face of a black man is cropped just above his closed eyes and at the shoulders. A cottony white ball emerges from his open mouth -- partly a muzzling gag that prevents free and unencumbered speech, especially given its inescapable allusion to slavery’s American history.


Newkirk has printed the photograph slightly out of focus, though, so that the lumpy sphere also suggests a snowball. Looking at it reminded me of David Hammons’ iconic 1983 ‘public performance sculpture’ in which he sold snowballs, priced according to size, on a Harlem sidewalk. A mordant mix of innocent playfulness and defiant aggression is declared. The quiet difference from most commercial billboards, with their loud, fast salesmanship, is palpable.

Unsurprisingly, L.A. has a long history of knowing artistic interaction with the billboard form, going back at least to 1965. That’s when Ed Ruscha, trained as a graphic designer and using the pseudonym ‘Eddie Russia,’ began a four-year stint doing all the layout work for Artforum magazine. Artforum’s unusual square format, distinctive on the newsstand, became even more so when opened: The wide horizontal rectangle became a ‘hand-held billboard’ for the graphic display of pictures and text.

The MAK Center has set up a website for its billboard project, headed by director Kimberli Meyer, complete with a map that can be downloaded to a hand-held device, a schedule of Saturday open-topped bus tours for those uninterested in battling traffic and a calendar of related events. There’s also a useful Twitter link, where each newly installed billboard is announced.

-- Christopher Knight


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Follow Times art critic Christopher Knight at KnightLAT on Twitter.