MAK Center for Art & Architecture, WH: How Many Billboards?

How Many Billboards? Art In Stead

MAK Center for Art and Architecture, West Hollywood, CA

Curated by Kimbery Meyer, Gloria Sutton, and Nizan Shaked

In an urban zone crisscrossed by multilane freeways and gridded with broad boulevards, the roadside billboards of Los Angeles may well be the city’s most visible platform for art. How Many Billboards? documents a 2010 project in which billboards in Los Angeles were turned over to 23 artists to do with as they wished, asserting the ongoing legacy of California Conceptualism and its combination of language-based strategies with Pop-inflected aesthetics. “Astonish!” declares Kenneth Anger’s billboard, in commanding upper-case orange lettering, recapitulating Diaghilev’s famous advice to Cocteau. “I Look Good, I Know,” says Yvonne Rainer’s billboard; “I Can’t Hear, I Can’t See, But I Look Good.” Martha Rosler’s collaboration with Josh Neufeld makes a plea for spending on higher education in California, and Renée Green’s image of a darkened shore with silhouetted figures gathered near a tourist ferry is accompanied by the two-line commentary “Strangers begin again/Native strangers hosting.” Other artists participating in this occasion are Michael Asher, Jennifer Bornstein, Eileen Cowin, Christina Fernandez, Ken Gonzales-Day, Kira Lynn Harris, Larry Johnson, John Knight, David Lamelas, Brandon Lattu, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Kori Newkirk, Allen Ruppersberg, Allan Sekula, Susan Silton, Kerry Tribe, Jim Welling and Lauren Woods. Essays by Kimberli Meyer, Gloria Sutton and Nizan Shaked, who co-curated the project, contextualize the works in relation to Conceptual and Pop art idioms, provide background material on the artists and outline the MAK Center’s plans to enliven public space.


Installation of billboard by Ken Gonzales-Day, How Many Billboards, commissioned by MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, 2010.

Kimberli Meyer

The philosophical proposition of the exhibition is simple: art should occupy a visible position in the cacophony of mediated images in the city, and it should do so without merely adding to the visual noise. How Many Billboards? Art In Stead proposes that art periodically displace advertisement in the urban environment.

Billboards are a dominant feature of the landscape in Los Angeles. Thousands line the city’s thoroughfares, delivering high-end commercial messages to a repeat audience. Given outdoor advertising’s strong presence in public space, it seems reasonable and exciting to set up the possibility for art to be present in this field. The sudden existence of artistic speech mixed in with commercial speech provides a refreshing change of pace. Commercial messaging tells you to buy; artistic messaging encourages you to look and to think.

Time and space allotted for artworks in commercial space is limited, and the sea of signs is vast. How can a billboard exhibition make a strong enough impact? Most importantly, the art cannot be passive. It must take a strategic approach, be critically oriented, and explore the billboard as a site.

Artistically and culturally, Los Angeles is an aggregate of dynamic histories. Experimental architecture has been active here since the early twentieth century, radical art since the 1950s. An acute awareness of urban space has always influenced both avant-garde architectural and art practices in Los Angeles. Southern California’s overlaps and interweaves of architectural adventurism, pop, and Conceptual Art have generated rich environments for artistic production and yielded influential bodies of art. My co-curators and I felt that these So-Cal syntheses are relevant for the dynamics of pop-public space in Los Angeles today.

It’s a win-win situation.

Los Angeles public space begs for smart art to break up the monotony of everyday media fare, and the billboard provides a fertile position for artists who work critically and site-responsively to test their ideas in urban media space. Contemporary art gains a momentarily broad audience, and city dwellers are extended a daily invitation to reflect and contemplate. Channels are opened for experimentation, innovation, and cultural exchange.

“How Many Billboards: Art in Stead.”
MAK Center for Art and Architecture, West Hollywood, CA
Feb. 5 – April 5, 2010

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