Redeeming Space: Art on Los Angeles Billboards

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Ken Gonzales-Day is an artist and scholar who likes to convey his message in a novel manner.  One example of this is Disappearing into the Trees, a recent, prominent exhibition he created about lynching.  Gonzales-Day displayed pictures of trees used for lynchings throughout California, but omitted any images of the victims. [1] Given his tendency to resort to unorthodox artistic expressions, Gonzales-Day was and ideal candidate for the recent Los Angeles exhibition, How Many Billboards?

How Many Billboards? was put together by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in 2010.  The purpose of the exhibition was to give an artistic break to the mass of advertisements throughout Los Angeles.  Its curators chose Los Angeles as the setting because the city has a tradition of artistic and architectural experimentation. [2] Twenty-one billboards were commissioned to twenty-one artists, including Gonzales-Day. [3]

The billboards dealt with a wide variety of themes.  Gonzales-Day’s billboard had a picture he took for a project called Profiled, which is about how people view race.  Shown above, it juxtaposes two busts made by Malvina Hoffman for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.  Hoffman’s task for the fair was to depict 104 “racial types,” and 70 years later Gonzales-Day allowed Los Angeles residents to examine how people once viewed race. [4] Other billboards examined gender, the media, and human rights.  Yvonne Rainer provided a quote from Marlene Dietrich to combat the issues that many women struggle with. [5] Kenneth Anger used one word—”astonish”—to simultaneously recognize what the media is capable of doing and to challenge it to be the best it can be. [6] John Knight advocated for a humanitarian organization that seeks to provide water for Palestinians, thus combining advertisement with art. [7] The exhibition thus offered a variety of thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing messages to the Los Angeles community.

Some artists are more opaque in their message than others.  Kori Newkirk made one of the most ambiguous billboards: it depicted him with a massive snowball stuffed in his mouth, and nothing in the background to give any context. [8] At the other extreme was a board by Martha Rosler and Josh Neufeld.  It criticized the gap between California’s prison and education expenditures, and used the symbolism of an earthquake to convey what the artists thought about this gap. [9]

How Many Billboards? was clearly meant to appeal to a variety of people, and it has an interesting level of accessibility.  On the one hand, its medium of choice makes it particularly open to the public.  Billboards are highly visible, located in public settings where they can be seen for free at any time.  Furthermore, the exhibition is spread out over 12 miles of Los Angeles.  This makes How Many Billboards? very accessible on a physical level.  On the other hand, the exhibition can be very cerebral.  The symbolism behind much of the artwork is not immediately evident, especially to someone who lacks a background in contemporary art.  A billboard like Newkirk’s may be seen by many people, but that does not mean that they will readily understand it.  This can limit accessibility as much as an obscure location.

[1] Vincent Price Art Museum. “Disappearing into the Trees: Works by Ken Gonzales-Day.” Exhibitions: Archive, 2012. Accessed February 7, 2014. http://vincentpriceartmuseum.org/exhibitions/year-2012/disappearing-into-the-trees-works-by-ken-gonzales-day/images/

[2] Meyer, Kimberly. “Director’s Statement.” How Many Billboards? Accessed February 13, 2014. http://www.howmanybillboards.org/index.html

[3] MAK Center for Art and Architecture. “Artists.” How Many Billboards? Accessed February 13, 2014. http://www.howmanybillboards.org/artists.html

[4] Gonzales-Day, Ken. “Profiled.” Ken Gonzales-Day: Projects. Accessed February 12, 2014. http://kengonzalesday.com/projects/bonegrassboy/index.htm

[5] MAK Center for Art and Architecture. “Artists: Yvonne Rainer.” How Many Billboards? Accessed February 13, 2014. http://www.howmanybillboards.org/yvonne-rainer.html

[6] MAK Center for Art and Architecture. “Artists: Kenneth Anger.” How Many Billboards? Accessed February 13, 2014. http://www.howmanybillboards.org/artists.html

[7] MAK Center for Art and Architecture. “Artists: John Knight.” How Many Billboards? Accessed February 13, 2014. http://www.howmanybillboards.org/john-knight.html

[8] MAK Center for Art and Architecture. “Artists: Kori Newkirk.” How Many Billboards? Accessed February 13, 2014. http://www.howmanybillboards.org/kori-newkirk.html

[9] MAK Center for Art and Architecture. “Artists: Martha Rosler with Josh Neufeld.” How Many Billboards? Accessed February 13, 2014. http://www.howmanybillboards.org/rosler-neufeld.html

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