In North Carolina, where Sen. Jesse Helms is running for reelection, you can see the conservative Republican's face on highway billboards everywhere. But now the outspoken critic of the National Endowment for the Arts is getting top billing in Los Angeles too, thanks to guerrilla artist Robbie Conal, who unveiled a bigger-than-life satirical portrait of Helms last week on a billboard in West Hollywood.
"I think of Jesse Helms as an icon of the conservative cultural brigade that's been on the move since the beginning of the Reagan Administration," said Conal, who has plastered city walls across America with biting political posters for the past several years. "He's an icon for the mean spirit that's sweeping the country. We in the arts community are just getting a dose of it now, but poor people--and people of color--have been suffering through it for the past 10 years."
The billboard portrait, which measures roughly 19 by 48 feet, superimposes Helms' visage on an artist's palette. The palette's thumb hole is centered in the middle of Helms' forehead, which is splattered with huge blobs of paint. By his head is the slogan: "Artificial Art Official." (The billboard is located on the north side of Santa Monica Boulevard, just west of La Cienega Boulevard.)
"I'd never done a billboard before," said the 45-year-old artist, whose work will be featured in the upcoming Los Angeles Festival. "But its sheer size is a great weapon for an artist. In America, we read signs and images in a special way--and we associate a huge public portrait with the Big Brother-style images of Stalin, Mussolini, Kadafi and (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein.
"So I was taken by the idea of a stuffy old white man, with a hole in his head, looming large over West Hollywood and the artistic community that resides there. It perfectly captured the scary, totalitarian image I was aiming for."
Conal, who rented the billboard space for three months, plans to change the title of the piece each month. In September, he says he'll replace the "Artificial Art Official" slogan with "Holy Homophobia."
Conal acknowledged that if the billboard aroused controversy, he could lose the space prematurely. "The owners of the billboard (3M National) know what's going up--and I was lucky that I found a sympathetic billboard broker who arranged everything for me. But who knows what'll happen, especially with the title changes?"
Conal did the original Helms portrait in his studio, using oil paint on canvas. Then he had it adapted to billboard size--and shape--by painter Riley Forsythe. "He came to my studio to see the original," said Conal. "Then he did a huge translation of it, which is put together on six sections of plywood flats. The billboard painting company trucks them down to the site and puts it up with a crane."
Conal wouldn't divulge how much the process costs; he considers it "simply part of my normal art-material expenses." He did admit that many friends urged him to put the billboard up in a more high-profile location like the Sunset Strip.
"I preferred West Hollywood, because I wanted to show solidarity with the gay community there," he said. "But I was also worried that if it went up on the Strip, people might think it was an ad for a Hollywood movie or a miniseries."