The Billboard Creative 2016 Show – Los Angeles
Curated by Mona Kuhn
On view through January 8, 2017
Reviewed by Lauren Greenwald
Hello, 2017! For many of us, this week will be marked by a return to work after a few precious days (or weeks) off, and a return to the grind of a daily commute. Commuters in Los Angeles, however, will have one last week to view something a little different: art from the comfort of their cars, courtesy of The Billboard Creative (TBC). This is the third public art show organized by the LA-based nonprofit group TBC, and the second curated by artist Mona Kuhn. Artworks by established and emerging artists are selected through a blind submission process and installed on unused billboards throughout the city for a month, creating a short-term public art project. This year, continuing through January 8, the work of 45 artists is displayed in a most public way – enormous in scale and high above the streets of LA. Mona Kuhn, a LA-based artist, was invited last year by TBC founder Adam Santelli to curate the 2015 show and to help the initiative expand. In a phone conversation last week, Kuhn talked to me about her involvement in the project.
According to Kuhn, the LA art scene is literally “bursting at the seams” – more artists than ever are moving to LA, and many of them don’t have gallery representation. The city’s history of groundbreaking art movements and its rich culture of contemporary art makes it fertile ground for alternative exhibitions. TBC is an entirely volunteer-run organization, and the submission process is an open call, with a modest entry fee. These fees pay for all of the installation costs for the subsequent show, as TBC collaborates with several billboard companies in LA who provide the billboards at reduced rates. In a gallery climate where every open call seems to be more and more expensive, it’s refreshing to see the submission fees being used in such an up-front way. The billboards are designed to only show the art – no other advertising is allowed. The screens are empty of all information except the art, the name of the artist, and the TBC logo.
This approach to using billboards, as a way to disseminate artwork, has become increasingly popular in the past five years. LAXART began using billboards in various public art initiatives as early as 2006, with its most recent iteration being the LAXART Public Domain Digital Billboard Platform, an ongoing presentation of time-based works. In 2010, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture launched the project How Many Billboards? Art In Stead with commissioned pieces from 21 noted contemporary artists including Alan Sekula, Ken Gonzales-Day, Martha Rosler, and James Welling. The Billboard Art Project, from 2010 to 2012, turned digital LED billboards across the country into public art displays for periods of 24 hours or more. From 2013-2015, the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project coordinated by LAND (the Los Angeles Nomadic Division) installed 100 billboards created by 10 artists across the US from Florida to California, along Interstate 10. The project #SAVEARTSPACE, begun last year in Brooklyn, NY, has used public ad space for its installations in New York and Miami, and will be launching a Los Angeles show, featuring 10 local artists, this month.
One particularly appealing aspect of TBC is the wide range of artists shown in this year’s collection. Not just a platform for photographic work, TBC includes artists working in painting, collage, and mixed media. In curating the exhibition, Mona Kuhn invited a few well-known artists to spark public interest – this year’s invited artists were Paul McCarthy and Alex Prager, and last year, she invited the granddaddy of LA art, Ed Ruscha. Bringing art to the street in such a democratic way works well – the higher-profile artists are given the same treatment as the emerging talent, and all of the participants have the privilege of tens of thousands of people are seeing their work every day.
LA is a car-based culture – a study this year of nationwide traffic patterns estimated that in 2015, the average commuter in LA spent 81 hours in their car a year, leading other car-clogged cities in the nation, such as DC (75 hours) and Houston (74 hours). When you’re in the car for that much time, what do you see? How do you view your environment? In Kuhn’s case, she felt there were different aspects of being in traffic to consider – moving quickly through traffic, paused briefly at a light or intersection, or stopped for a long period of time in gridlock. So when she began choosing the work for this show, she relied on two primary criteria – the work needed to have strong graphic elements and be able to attract the eye of the viewer in a moment, or should be more subtle and dreamlike, something the viewer could spend time with and meditate upon. In addition, Kuhn wanted to create corridors in which the works intersect with each other as well as the environment. One of these billboards may simply become a small bright spot in the landscape of a thoroughfare, or, depending on the routes taken by drivers, may become a guided tour of contemporary art. The more you drive, the more you see. In the press release for TBC, she states, “The injection of artistic speech into the urban environment offers an occasion for commuters to pause and contemplate. We hope to facilitate a cultural exchange, connecting artists with large audiences and bringing art to many people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to see it.” And while the exhibition seems, to my mind, to be very “LA” in tone, bright colors, graphic displays, a lot of playfulness and confrontation in the imagery, the work chosen is international, with artists from seven countries included. And this process does take the art out of the gallery or museum, and puts it in the streets.
Perhaps it is the liveliness and verve in many of the works that appeals to me. Painter Bryan Ida’s painting, titled Embarcadero, is all movement and rhythm, and reminds me of a California–flavored, modern remake of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. When I lived in NYC in the late 1990s, I remember areas of the city where the faded advertisements painted on the sides of buildings remained, and newer graffiti and painted murals all seemed to merge into a riot of pattern and color, creating vibrant backdrops to the cityscape, ones I would change my daily route to encounter.
There is an interesting relationship between the mass-produced (or mechanically reproduced) image and the transitional, liminal spaces we encounter in modern life. There is so much passive viewing that happens in moving through a city. So what do we do with all of those eyes? What is public space? Who owns the air? Who owns the sides of buildings? As we know, everything is for sale, and I think it’s useful to consider how prevalent the role of advertising has become in our society. In many cases, the only “art” the average American sees is created for ads, either as a graphic logo, a catchy ad campaign, or aspirational imagery meant to sell, sell, sell.
I imagine that many viewers of these billboards might take a moment, and think, what is this an ad for? Maybe they never take the time to find out, to realize that in this case, we have Art instead of Advertising. But perhaps that's ok. Kuhn talked about the ability of the art she chose to transport the viewers to another place, to create a moment of beauty in an otherwise mundane moment. Two figures, wearing the gaudy masks of the luchadores, or Mexican wrestlers, embrace in French artist Yannick Fournié's painting, their Pepto-Bismol pink headgear contrasting with a bright aqua background and the dark suit and tie worn by the male figure. Mounted high above a drab section of Sunset, the bright painting pulls your eye above the stark blue and red signs on the buildings into the endless sky above, and perhaps, for a moment, you are caught up in the exuberance of this candy-colored kiss. Many of the selections made by Kuhn respond to and communicate this exhilaration; a sense of hope and joy, she felt, was important to include. Ruben Natal-San Miguel's image of a figure silhouetted before a starburst of water exploding from a fire hydrant, for example, communicates the simple joys of summer in the city.
In some cases, the density of the urban fabric intersects beautifully with the artwork. Gustavo Blanco-Uribe, a Madrid-based artist, uses collage, juxtaposing grainy black and white imagery with bold color forms. When seen from a particular direction, the bright blue and yellow forms of the billboard blend with and continue the blue and yellow signage of the buildings around it. The combination of monochrome and bright color also reinforces the billboard aesthetic, hinting at an advertising campaign that is not there.
The uncanny takes center stage in many of the works. In another piece, by the Viennese artist Marlies Plank, a very gaudy, very green painted mountain scene is pierced by a pair of hands reaching through, showing part of a face behind them. Is this person trying to break free from a purgatory of bad art? This play within the picture plane, and the surface of the billboard, is wonderful. Alex Prager’s piece works in a similar way – we look up at the disembodied feet and legs of various figures, as if the viewer is trapped underneath a glass floor, unbeknownst to the subjects. On the flip side, the viewer hovers above NYC-based Margeaux Walter’s constructed floral fantasy. Four figures sit at the four corners of a square table, covered in floral fabrics, blending into the flowered multicolor tablecloth. A flower arrangement in the center draws the eye into the image and you feel you are being sucked into the photograph, while the layering of patterns and color overwhelms and disturbs the viewer.
Another element I'm particularly attracted to with this exhibition is the cinematic quality many of these images have. The horizontal form of the billboard references the film screen, and I found myself drawn to the works that were fantastic, and fabulous. Nancy Baron's image, showing two open doors set against an upholstered wall of faux (at least I hope it's faux) fur, made me think of a particularly elaborate film set. And of course, the title is Lee's Gone, Liberace's Palm Springs Estate.
Along with considering a link with the cinema, I return to thinking about car culture, and the now-disappearing intersection of the two – the drive-in theater. The American drive-in only exists today as a nostalgic relic from the past, but it is still powerfully evocative of freedom, fun, and pure entertainment. One of my favorite pieces from the show is by Simon Davidson, an Australian photographer who documents the macho mayhem of the burnout scene. His photograph of a muscle car at the moment before the wheels blow captures the violence and beauty of this bizarre spectacle. Mona Kuhn said that in this exhibition, she wanted to stop traffic with art. I think she and The Billboard Creative, and all of the excellent artists included, have done just that. Angelenos, I hope, will take this week and seek out some of this work before it is taken down.
All of the work and information on the participating artists, along with a mobile app, can be found on The Billboard Creative site: http://www.thebillboardcreative.com
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, SC.