A billboard's statement

Times Staff Writer

Let "Guernica" speak.

That's the simple message offered by a flawed yet lucid work of public art erected Friday evening on a billboard above a busy intersection at the edge of Los Feliz Village.

It stands in prompt but considered response to February's Great "Guernica" Cover-up. A tapestry version of Pablo Picasso's famous 1937 invective about the innocent victims of war was notoriously covered by a blue curtain at the United Nations last month, when arms inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei presented reports on Iraqi disarmament, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell responded with the U.S. case for war.

Shock greeted the cover-up, and disbelief greeted the official explanation: Television cameras were said to need a blank backdrop for interviews with diplomats, and the "Guernica" pattern was too busy.

Friday, when Blix, ElBaradei and Powell returned to the U.N. for an update, the Los Feliz billboard made its debut. (It remains through March 15.)

A newly formed artists' collective called Making Art Work wondered: If an antiwar image can be hidden at the United Nations, established for the purpose of finding peaceful alternatives to war, and if a revered 20th century artist can be censored, what's next?

The billboard, designed by Jesse Stagg, Piper Severance, Thea Sprecher and Bettina Korek, asserts that free expression must be sacrosanct -- not least in matters as grave as this. It is located above a used-car lot at the intersection of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards. By day, it shows a reproduction of Picasso's painting. By night, under black-light illumination, spectral blue curtains are subtly superimposed through ultraviolet-sensitive paint, and the U.N. symbol glows in the center.

The curtains are shown as if drawn back to reveal the painting, giving the billboard the appearance of a theatrical stage or domestic picture window.

"Guernica's" muscular antiwar propaganda fuses with the United Nations motif.

At the left, the drawn curtain frames the bull, stark symbol of brute power, lowering over a screaming woman who clutches a child's limp corpse. At the right it frames a shrieking head, which was a source for an unforgettable 1967 antiwar poster by Tomi Ungerer recently shown at Track 16 Gallery. The poster shows the Statue of Liberty being shoved down the throat of a Southeast Asian, in a blunt indictment of the arrogant folly of forced democratization.

The billboard suffers from two flaws. One is bad color reproduction, which portrays "Guernica" as a symphony of browns. The actual painting was rendered in black, white and gray, which meant to evoke the urgency of a newspaper front page. The second is that, under dim black light, its dramatic details are obscured.

But these are cavils. The billboard's elementary message of unfettered individual speech gains unusual pungency at a moment like this. "Guernica" still speaks.

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