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Lighthearted street art delights (and confuses) downtown L.A. visitors

With the chilling pulse of the"Drive"movie soundtrack flooding their van, Calder Greenwood and his cohort sped into the shadows of the bridges overlooking the L.A. River east of downtown Los Angeles. They were on a mission to humanize the harsh industrial landscape of concrete, rusting metal, graffiti and whitewash.

Their installation: A life-size papier-mache surfer.

Deftly using wires and a concrete block, Greenwood placed the surfer smack in the middle of the waterway. The next morning, it was there to delight — and, in some cases, confuse — motorists driving across the river during the morning commute.

Downtown L.A. has no shortage of street art, from the historic murals that grace freeway walls and aging brick buildings to the flowering graffiti and the more graphical works from the likes of Shepard Fairey. Some of it is political. Some of it is social commentary. Much of it is serious.

But over the last several weeks, downtown has been the site of a decidedly lighter form of guerrilla street art that has generated much buzz and debate over its deeper meaning.

It started in May when Greenwood and his partner, known only as Wild Life, placed a family of life-size sunbathers in an empty downtown lot, the site of a stalled federal courthouse. Later, papier-mache deer popped up in the untrimmed weeds by 4th and Hill streets. Then a wooden tree sprouted from a stump near Spring and 2nd streets.

The pieces created a sensation as bloggers and passers-by pondered the back story: Was this some statement on blight or urban renewal? Or was it a work of subtle advertising?

Neither, said Greenwood, a transplanted New Yorker who moved to downtown L.A. last fall. His only goal was to get people to notice things they pass every day but never see.

"I'm inspired by downtown," Greenwood said. "What some see as an eyesore, I think is beautiful. It's just getting people to look up and see what's otherwise invisible."

Street art veterans said the simplicity and fanciful nature of the pair's work set it apart.

"I find that purity refreshing," said Daniel Lahoda, founder of LA Freewalls, an unofficial art initiative that invites international muralists to paint, technically illegally, on the walls of downtown buildings.

"The sunbathers weren't done along with a brand, or a marketing stunt for the artist's career. It was done just for art's sake.... I think there's a lot of power behind this type of uncommissioned art."

Lahoda said other artists have also found ways to enliven downtown, including one graphic designer who creates 3D quartz formations with shiny paper, filling in defunct telephone booths and holes in brick walls.

Greenwood, 32, who creates short films and visual effects, said he was taking his parents to the Walt Disney Concert Hall when they walked by a dirt pit, half-filled with rainwater, and "this image of sunbathers just popped in my head."

By chance, he met Wild Life, a longtime L.A. artist who once created street signs that said "DRUGS" and "HEROIN" and placed them around skid row. Within minutes of their first conversation, the two had committed to the same artistic vision.

During their downtime, in a packed windowless workroom in the back of Greenwood's apartment, the two spend a few days each week creating realistic sculptures out of recycled cardboard and papier-mache.

Their installations have been subtle enough to stand unnoticed by many, but bring a brief moment of amusement to those who pause long enough to see them. In the parking lot by an unattended grassy slope, one valet said the deer's arrival made him want to clean up the weeds and trash that he had barely noticed before.

"I both live and work in downtown, and it still doesn't have a lot of green space and you can't really get away from the concrete landscape," said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn. "So to be able to walk around that area and have something to laugh at is fabulous."

She likened it to a pop-up store that comes and goes without advance notice.

Another longtime downtown resident, Brady Westwater, said everyone he knows is talking about it.

"It's all over Facebook," he said. "It's hard to find something that stands apart from the regular type of street art we've seen around here.... They're not damaging property. They have a very light touch, but a very strong presence."

Roger Gastman, co-curator of last year's "Art in the Streets" show at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, said this kind of art is popular because it's accessible.

"It's much more digestible to the public than traditional graffiti," he said, noting that it's also an increasingly popular way for artists to quickly "build a buzz."

Although Greenwood said he intended to remain anonymous, he posted photos of the work-in-progress on his Facebook page and didn't realize the installations would go viral.

But after the sunbathers drew media attention, friends showered Greenwood with praise. Even his parents in New York heard about it when family friends called and asked: Is this your Calder Greenwood?

And when Wild Life walked into a Santa Monica cafe popular among the art crowd, the owner laughed and said: "Well, Mr. Ano-ny-mous. What an honor."

Before they carted out the sunbathers, the duo had their eyes on other holes and "loosely abandoned" parcels around town. Cardboard is cheap and flexible to work with, Greenwood said, and with practice, each project has gotten more creative and durable.

Even without the buzz, Greenwood said, it's worth it. "Building it is fun," he said. "Installing it is a rush."

For their most recent installation, Greenwood and Wild Life donned dark clothes and hit the streets after midnight to relocate the deer. They awkwardly cradled the life-size herbivores under their arms, sidestepping bar-lined Main Street in favor of skid row.

At the spot, they fell silent, glancing over their shoulders as they raced into the brush. In less than 10 minutes, Greenwood and Wild Life hammered the deer into their latest home: a trash-speckled slope of grass overshadowed by the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Stanley Mosk Courthouse.

From the pair's vantage point, Wild Life could see a scaffold that's been hanging off a building for years. He's already envisioning what's next.

rosanna.xia@latimes.com

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