Mike McNeilly is competing for your attention. The artist-entrepreneur knows that in this billboard-filled, media-saturated city you probably don't have much to spare. That only makes him try harder.
Forget art galleries, he says. He'd rather rent 500 bus benches and display his paintings there. Construction sites are also good--he hires crews to plaster them with his glossy posters. Billboards--like the red and white "One God. One World. One Human Race. One L.A." that he posted just days after the spring riots--reach people who have never set foot in a museum.
"I like to grab someone by the jugular and say, 'Give me three seconds. Think!' " said McNeilly, whose goal--to never let an image become so familiar that it has no impact--keeps him churning out what he calls "visual sound bites" at an alarming rate. "I try to get things out--fast, big and current."
Lately, the emphasis has been on big. Last year, after Earvin (Magic) Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive, McNeilly projected a 50-foot image of the words, "Do or Die"--with a torn condom package dotting the "i"--onto the Playboy building in West Hollywood. For the last three months, a 50-by-100-foot banner protesting censorship has occupied the same site. Its central image: the Statue of Liberty, blindfolded and gagged.
But the huge banner that went up on the western face of 8560 Sunset Blvd. last week may be McNeilly's most eye-catching yet. Copied in part from Rome's Sistine Chapel, it features four men, naked and positioned, McNeilly says delicately, "with everything they own out there." At the banner's center, a scantily clad, female cartoon figure bursts out of a pink triangle.
"No Glove," proclaims the woman, armed with a paint gun to symbolize art attacking AIDS, "No Love!"
McNeilly, 39, calls this "Lethal Art"--a self-titled genre that he defines as work "that deals with life-and-death issues that affect all of us." Inventing one's own genre may seem a bit precocious--even arrogant. But McNeilly has something to say, and thanks to the financial success of his commercial photography business and other investments, he can afford to say it.
Last year, he sent out 500 dollar bills to people he thought had the power to do something about unemployment--the President, among other government officials, corporate leaders and the media. Each bill was stamped with the words "Buy American," as were 12,000 posters that he posted all over New York and Los Angeles. Other pieces have addressed hunger, freedom of speech and random violence.
"Thou Shall Not KILL," one poster declares in huge letters. In smaller print: "Every 22 minutes someone is murdered in the United States."
In contrast to Los Angeles' best-known street artist, Robbie Conal, who skewers politicians like Jesse Helms and Dan Quayle and takes stands on controversial issues like abortion, McNeilly often steers clear of biting commentary. McNeilly's work is more informative than satirical--filled with proven health advice, stark comparisons and statistics.
"It's less adversarial. His is more an art of exhortation and advocacy--which there's plenty of room for," said Conal, adding that he admires McNeilly's "ability to eat up so much space on the streets for meaningful issues and take it away from advertisements for tobacco and alcohol. . . . I'm a fan."
So is movie director Joel Schumacher, who features the work of both McNeilly and Conal in his movie "Falling Down," set to open in February. The movie is about an unemployed defense worker gone haywire (Michael Douglas) and the police officer (Robert Duvall) who pursues Douglas on his crazed, daylong trek across Los Angeles.
Because Conal and McNeilly's art addresses real and frightening issues, Schumacher felt it provided the appropriate backdrop for his bleak and timely tale.
"They're dealing with child abuse . . . with the economic deterioration of the middle class, with abortion, AIDS, hunger, murder," said the director, adding that the artists' different styles worked well together. "Robbie is showing you the dead body. McNeilly is more saying, 'Remember how many dead bodies there were today.' Both are equally important."
McNeilly strives not to be predictable. News reports provide some of his material, but the Oklahoma native who has lived in Los Angeles since age 6 also draws inspiration from Andy Warhol and Carole Lombard, Alice Cooper, Christo and Darth Vader.
McNeilly abhors the bland, but painstakingly avoids the preachy.
"I'm not interested in doing Muzak for the walls. But I'm not up on a pulpit, either," he said. "Hopefully, (the art) stimulates and motivates--gets people off their ass. But the message is for the people, and it's up to them to interpret."
McNeilly believes in self-reliance--for his audience, and for himself. He has no publisher, no agent and is not represented by a gallery. He does not sell his pieces (although he loves to give them away) and says he would never apply for a government grant.