Artist aims for cowboy transcendence in hills above 2 Freeway

Motorists on the 2 Freeway for the last couple of months have noticed a shadowy figure or two gazing into the distance from the hills above.

Cardboard cutouts of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and Gene Autry, bearing labels that read “Glendale Public Art Project 2012,” have been a mystery — something their creator says is intentional.

Justin Stadel, the Glassell Park resident and artist behind the cowboy cutouts, said he created the works so viewers could draw a spiritual feeling, a sense of freedom, from L.A.'s varied landscape.

“I want people to drive by these cowboys and say, ‘That person up on that hill could be me. I could be up there,’ ” he said.

Stadel, 30, who was reluctant to be named for this story, said he isn’t interested in street-art-style works promoting a personal brand or logo.

“I wanted to do a project where people would think about the art, not about the creator of it,” Stadel said. “But I did like the idea of being able to just go do something.”

That aspect of the work earned Stadel an encounter with Glendale police.

“When I put up the Gene Autry, the police came in with the helicopter immediately, and they were circling,” Stadel said. “I was like, ‘Oh no.’ ”

Stadel said a Glendale Police Department patrol car was waiting for him when he came down the hill. But when he explained what he was doing, the officer was intrigued. Perhaps for that reason, the cutouts still stand.

“There’s the Gene Autry museum right down the street, there’s the John Wayne Airport. It’s like a culturally embedded thing — cowboys are good,” Stadel said.

Still bearing scrapes from his climb to mount the John Wayne cutout north of Glendale Community College, Stadel said getting the pieces up to their vantage points was part artwork and part legwork, since he wasn’t mounting the cutouts on established trails. Stadel said he climbed up a steep hill to place Eastwood in a prominent spot, only to realize later that he had mounted the cutout steps off a trail near Descanso Gardens.

The cutouts’ striking poses are culled from still shots Stadel found on the Internet and then manipulated using Photoshop. Stadel said he had to add different legs and was careful to remove any guns.

Eastwood’s stoic gaze comes from the 1964 spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars,” while Wayne’s broad-shouldered figure was pulled from the iconic 1956 John Ford Western “The Searchers.”

The cutouts are Stadel’s first foray into public art since 2006. One of his projects at that time was “Death of a Wax Boat,” in which Stadel constructed an 8-foot sailboat out of wax candles and set it alight in Echo Park Lake. But the battles to gain approval for the projects left him financially and creatively drained, he said.

The cowboys are an attempt to recapture the spontaneity and serendipity of public art, Stadel said.

“It’s a sense of freedom, which is different from art now in museums and galleries and homes,” Stadel said. “In museums, it’s like a mausoleum.”