Art is the message on these billboards

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A grid of blue diagonals, the profiles of two men confronting each other, a series of colorful vertical stripes with an embedded phrase -- these will be some of the enigmatic images flashing through our peripheral vision while driving in L.A. over the next six weeks.

They are three of the 21 visual artists’ billboards that have been going up in some of the most trafficked corridors of Los Angeles, part of a long percolating idea of Kimberli Meyer, director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House.

Meyer arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago in 1993 to study for a master’s in fine art at California Institute of the Arts.

“Like many people who find themselves in Los Angeles, I was spending a lot of time in traffic staring at the billboards,” she says. “I was amazed at how many there are in the landscape, how strong a feature they are. So I thought it would be great to give visual artists the chance to occupy that space, at least now and then.”

In 2002 she was appointed to the MAK, and four years later she began raising money for her dream project. “How Many Billboards?” will be sited in the central part of the city, bounded on the west by the 405 freeway and on the east by downtown. (Maps are available at the Schindler House as well as posted on www.howmanybill

They were designed by 22 artists -- one is a collaboration between the mother-son team of Martha Rosler and Josh Neufeld -- most of them based in the Los Angeles area. Only a handful had done billboards before, but all were chosen by Meyer and co-curators Lisa Henry, Nizan Shaked and Gloria Sutton on their potential to realize outsized presentations.

The artists include James Welling, creator of the blue diagonal piece and a professor at UCLA; Jennifer Bornstein, subject of a MOCA Focus show in 2005; and Kori Newkirk, who was in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

Several are known for their work in experimental film -- Kenneth Anger, David Lamelas, Kerry Tribe and Yvonne Rainer, who is also a dancer-choreographer.

Fortunately, says Meyer, the current recession-related drop in advertising proved a boon. Though billboard space in L.A. is much in demand by advertisers, public service billboards were more readily available.

This was arranged by Rick Robinson, West Coast general manager of MacDonald Media, who Meyer calls “the hero of the project.”

Robinson obtained donated space from CBS Outdoor, Clear Channel, Regency, Van Wagner and General Outdoor, while MAK pays for the printing of the vinyl sheets and the labor to install them.

Different strategies have been employed by the artists in presenting their own public messages. Kira Lynn Harris incorporates an image of one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Watts Towers, with the words “Community as Art.”

Allen Ruppersberg, one of the pioneers of Conceptual Art, puts in a plug for Pacific Standard Time (“Coming Soon”), the series of upcoming exhibitions that will celebrate art in Southern California. Kerry Tribe shows a sky filled with clouds. Susan Silton created the striped billboard, and embedded in it is the phrase “If I Say So.”

“The idea is for it to be readable but also subtle,” she says. “There’s a couple things operating simultaneously.”

Long interested in the stripe as a marker of otherness, Silton has used it in previous work. She cites Michel Pastoureau’s book “The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes,” which explores the fact that “Stripes were worn by the reprobates of society, stripes were marker for transgression.”

The incorporated phrase in her billboard comes from a 1961 work by Robert Rauschenberg that consisted of a telegram saying, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” (Clert was a gallerist who called for an exhibition of portraits of her.)

There is, Silton says, “a command implicit in the billboard.”

The work featuring the profile of two men is by Ken Gonzales-Day, who discovered only recently that he loves working on this scale. Three years ago he was commissioned to do one by LAXART, and he blew up a photograph of a tree at night -- it referred to his research into racially motivated lynchings in California history.

“The sense of scale and the significance of the location, hovering over the gallery area,” he says, “it opened the work up to wider interpretation than if it were just in a gallery.”

Last fall, while a Getty scholar, he photographed portrait busts at the Getty Museum and Getty Villa. “I was looking at 18th and 19th century texts for ideas for racial formation,” he says. “From there I was looking at instruction manuals for artists, and the influence of those ideas on sculpture themselves.” These ideas, he says, later became canonized in art education.

In his billboard, two men in profile face each other from either end of the rectangular space -- and even though both are in dark skin tones, one is recognizably white, the other African American. Both are from the Getty collection: on the left is a 16th century Italian sculpture by Antico in bronze, and on the right an 18th century sculpture by Francis Harwood, identified as an African athlete in black stone.

The billboards began going up a week ago; each one will be up for one to two months. Various public programs will start Feb. 27 (a reception for the artists and bus tours), with film screenings, panel discussions and lectures to follow.

Chances are more people will see these billboards than work by the artists in a typical art gallery or museum.

“This is core L.A., it’s all the major boulevards,” says Robinson, the billboard expert. “The typical billboard in this area -- which is [seen on] surface streets -- averages about 35,000 plus impression opportunities a day,” he says. That is billboard industry terminology for 35,000 plus sets of adult eyeballs that will see the board each day, and that doesn’t include pedestrians.

“It’ll be out of context somewhat,” he says of the artists’ work. However, he points out, “People love to be intrigued by a billboard.”