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How Many Billboards?: A Reflection on Los Angeles and its Art
Alice Beretta

May, 2010

To embark on the How Many Billboards? urban artwork treasure hunt is to engage with quintessential elements of the unique city of Los Angeles: the car culture and Conceptual art.  Beginning at the Mak Center for Art and Architecture, the home base of the innovative exhibit, the audience is sent out into Los Angeles in their cars, maps in hand, to navigate and experience the jungle of city streets in a different way–as a gallery space where the of art is found on billboards, truly accessible to all.  As art, rather than monotonous, intrusive advertisements essentially aimed at taking from the viewer, these billboards provide refreshing images that offer viewers food for thought as their continue along their commutes, evoking issues central to Los Angeles art movements. 

 

With John Knight’s donation of his billboard to the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), Yvonne Rainer’s focus on women’s issues, Fira Lyn Harris’s emphasis on “Community as Art,” and the exhibit’s location on city streets, How Many Billboards? reflects L.A. artists’ focuses on political activism, feminism, community spirit, and the urban landscape respectively.  Further, with talks about the exhibit traveling to other cities, a question arises that asks whether this unique exhibit would be as effective or meaningful outside the context of L.A.

 

            Located on the Sunset Strip, the billboard of artist John Knight embodies the political activism rooted in the city’s art history and hearkens to the Los Angeles Artist Protest Committee’s Peace Tower, erected not far down the road in 1966.  Instead of designing his own billboard, Knight donated the advertising space to MECA, a nonprofit organization focused on serving Middle Eastern children.  The nonprofit, then, decided to utilize the artist’s donation to promote one of their programs, aimed at providing drinking water to the children of Gaza.[1]  The straightforward, poignant advertisement, ironically juxtaposed with and strengthened by a Gucci ad representing the superficiality of society, is dominated by a close-up photograph of a single drop of water, landing and creating a ripple in a body of water, and reads, “from LA to Palestine / Clean Drinkable water is a human right.”

           

             In a similar gesture of utilizing art to relay messages of social action, the L.A. Artist Protest Committee’s Peace Tower, surrounded by the paintings donated by artists including Knight’s Los Angeles contemporaries Wallace Berman and Judy Chicago, was created in protest of the Vietnam War.[2]   Other billboards further reveal the exhibit’s roots in the city’s intriguing history, as they are also reflective of movements at the heart of Los Angeles art world.

 

            Yvonne Rainer’s billboard on Pico Blvd. unmistakably reflects another central driving force behind much L.A. art: the city’s Feminist art movement spearheaded by Judy Chicago in the 1970s.[3]  The work is very minimal, with a white background, and features a quote from the famous Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich (“I LOOK GOOD, I KNOW / I CAN’T HEAR, I CAN’T SEE / BUT I LOOK GOOD”) in a basic, black font.  The Mak Center explains that the artist’s use of the quote is ultimately meant to confront the local Hollywood film industry’s contribution to the subjugation of women: “By alluding to and defamiliarizing mass-media imagery, especially Hollywood movies, Rainer casts a critical light on various scenarios that contribute to women's oppression-social, political and physical.”[4]  Rainer encourages viewers to think about the harsh truth that Hollywood perpetuates poor treatment of women.  Further, as those navigating the city’s streets approach this work, they would likely be taken off guard by these though-provoking words in the place of what might otherwise have been an ad much like Gucci’s on Sunset, promoting an image of a sexy, idealized female figure whose worth is determined by her looks alone.  Not far from this location, another billboard encompasses yet another central aspect of contemporary Los Angeles art.

 

            The use of art to unite people, so exemplified by Allan Kapprow and, more recently, the art collaborative Fallen Fruit, was captured in Kira Lyn Harris’s billboard on La Cienaga Blvd.  The work consists of a black background with various takes on the focus phrase, “Community as Art,” accompanied by an image of the Watts Towers in white.  The Mak Center explains that the towers were built to bring the community together after the tragic Watts Riots: “The Watts Towers Arts Center, also overseen by the city of Los Angeles, was founded in the aftermath of the Watts Riots of 1965 in an attempt to use art to heal a battered community.”[5]  The community involvement required for the creation of the towers helped pave the way for new ideas about the purpose of art, in which meaning lies in the positive interaction of people participating in the work, not the completed work itself. 

 

              Allan Kapprow’s “Happenings” in the 1960s and today’s Fallen Fruit’s Fruit Jam’s similarly utilize art to unite, and Harris’s billboard brings up this rich history.  As a side note, the billboard’s visibility from the 10 Freeway is highly ironic, as the major thoroughfare also brings people together; but, in this case, being together is an unwanted result of the almighty Los Angeles traffic jam, where people are physically separated by their metal vehicles and often in conflict with one another.  Consequently, the juxtaposition of  “Community as Art” with the L.A. highway results in an even higher appreciation for the meaning of the work and its message of community.

 

            In addition to including artists representative of the city’s diverse and progressive art history, their works are presented in a way that reflects and plays off of the car culture such a part of the Los Angeles experience.  In fact, this aspect of the exhibit also interacts with the city’s art history in its own unique way, as artists like Ed Ruscha and actor Dennis Hopper where interested in cars as a “prosthetic device for seeing the city” circa 1960. [6]  How Many Billboards? follows in the tradition of these figures interested in providing views of the unique urban landscape that is Los Angeles from the cars in which its inhabitants spend so much of their time.  While the current exhibit differs in its asking the audience to view the landscape with their own eyes, both promote the idea that art can be found in unsuspected places.  

 

                                 As seen through the work of John Knight, Yvonne Rainer, Kira Lynn Harris, the How Many Billboards? exhibit clearly reflects the city of Los Angeles and its artists’ continuing focus on social and political justice, feminism, and community.  In addition, the exhibit’s use of billboards to display art plays off the car culture of Los Angeles that also has deeply influenced the city’s contemporary art.  While the creative use of traditional advertising space as its platform and its accessibility to all roadway travelers would provide for an interesting and powerful experience in any city, there is no doubt that Los Angeles is the best possible location for How Many Billboards?.  However, the exhibit is simply too good of an idea to restrict to one city, and the sharing of ideas is something the socially and politically conscious Los Angeles art community would definitely be on board for.



[1] How Many Billboards?, “John Knight,” Mak Center for Art and Architecture, http://www.howmanybillboards.org/john-knight.html.

[2] Kastner, Jeffrey, “Peace Tower,” Artforum, March 2006, 253.

[3] Paul J. Karlstrom, “Art School Sketches: Notes on the Central Role of Schools in California Art and Culture,” in Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000, ed. Nola Butler and Thomas Frick (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 99.

[4] How Many Billboards, “Yvonne Rainer,” Mak Center for Art and Architecture, http://www.howmanybillboards.org/yvonne-rainer.html.

[5] How Many Billboards, “Kira Lynn Harris,” Mak Center for Art and Architecture, http://www.howmanybillboards.org/kira-lynn-harris.html.

[6] Karlstrom, “Art School Sketches: Notes on the Central Role of Schools in California Art and Culture,” 23.



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