Art Lies, Volume 67, Fall/Winter 2010 Page: 90
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L. Kerry Tribe, commissioned by the MAK Center for How Many Billboards? Art
In Stead, 2010; photo by Gerard Smulevich
R. John Knight, commissioned by the MAK Center for How Many Billboards?
Art In Stead, 2010; photo by Gerard Smulevich
How Many Billboards? Art In Stead
The largest artist billboard project of its kind in Los Angeles history, How
Many Billboards? Art In Stead is an exhibition of great complexity and
breadth. Organized by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture's direc-
tor, Kimberli Meyer, along with co-curators Lisa Henry, Nizan Shaked,
Gloria Sutton and Sara Daleiden, the exhibition consists of twenty-one
billboards conceived by a roster of leading contemporary conceptual art-
ists. Dispersed around Los Angeles in locations primarily bounded by the
Hollywood (US-101), Harbor (SR 110), San Diego (1-405), and Santa Monica
(1-10) freeways, the billboards were up from February to May, during which
time individual works were relocated from neighborhood to neighborhood
as their original sites were rented out by advertising companies. The show
is so big and diffuse that it's difficult to absorb, both physically and criti-
cally, as a collective whole.
Aside from accomplishing feats of bureaucratic maneuvering, the
greatest success of this exhibition is that it inserts a good deal of art into
the Los Angeles skyline. It creates the opportunity to see something out of
the ordinary away from the confines of a white cube gallery, and to see the
city anew. Whether such an experience is at all necessary is up for debate.
All discussions about public art for the public good aside, the collection
of artistic propositions in How Many Billboards is impressive and critically
engaging, though not without some faults.
In the well-written catalogue that archives the exhibition, curator
Kimberli Meyer points out that, with these artist billboards, "Site super-
sedes content and intent, in the sense that whatever appears on the
billboard is read according to the conventions of the billboard as site." This
notion of the billboard as a public location with prescribed viewing habits
presents the greatest challenge for the works-and the artists behind
them. How does one make art framed by the insidious interpolating
conventions of corporate advertising, while avoiding creating a situation
that apes the look of guerilla marketing (ad campaigns that masquerade as
individual or iconoclastic gestures, only to reveal their corporate advertis-
ing motivations at a later date)?
Many of the billboards in the exhibition risk falling into this trap, with
contributions by James Welling and Kerry Tribe being the most obvious
examples. Welling's work presents a photograph of sumptuous blue bands
that crisscross like Fox searchlights against a black background. Tribe's
contribution offers a photograph of a brooding, cloud-filled sky intended to
provide a contrast to LA's perpetually clear (if you don't count smog) firma-
ment. While both works do provide the opportunity for one to pause and
perhaps meditate on representation, abstraction and nature, they have the
unmistakable look of advertising in the making, as if at any moment they
could sprout a Levi's logo. It's a cynical and somewhat unavoidable view to
take but one that seems apropos given the abundance of similar-looking
billboards in the city.
The most successful works in the exhibition get around this problem
by either fully embracing the billboard as discursive site or by displaying
imagery that is difficult, if impossible, for corporate interests to co-opt.
The contributions by John Knight and the team of Martha Rosier and Josh
Neufeld do just that.
Knight gave control of the imagery that would appear in his billboard
90 ART LIES NO. 67
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Mueller, Kurt. Art Lies, Volume 67, Fall/Winter 2010, periodical, 2010; Houston, Texas. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228032/m1/92/: accessed August 14, 2022), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; .