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Images with a drive-by impact

Two projects are putting public art somewhere you can hardly miss it: on billboards. But the medium, while offering huge viewership, is a tricky one.

August 15, 2004|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

How do you catch someone's eye in three to 12 seconds? That's the issue for artists preparing political work for display on billboards -- roadside and otherwise -- and hoping to arrest the attention of viewers hurrying past with other things on their minds.

Although billboards have long served as venues for art -- from the Guerrilla Girls' feminist broadsides to Youth Art Month celebrations by Midwestern schoolchildren -- the election year and polarized political climate have sparked new activity.

This season sees two political art projects that are studies in contrast: The first is a series of works on Wilshire Boulevard that does not look radically different from what you might see a few stories below at the Acme Gallery. The second is a more plain-spoken billboard in New York's Times Square, sponsored by a Berkeley group. And unlike a lot of art projects aimed at the public -- and often sponsored by arts councils in the name of "beautification" -- these are funded largely by private, even corporate, money. The efforts show the field's possibilities and challenges.

"I'm not into shock value," says Susan Silton, whose work was selected for Public Speaking, a new series of political-art pieces looming, on alternating months, above Wilshire. "I'm interested in choosing images that have many meanings."

Silton doesn't want to confound cruising viewers, but she isn't after a didactic, one-sided slogan, either. "It's a complex image," she says of her photograph of a fumigated house draped in a red, white and blue sheet, with the word "Sold" printed next to it. "But if you think about it a little bit, it's readable."

Similarly, series organizer Julia Meltzer says she's interested in "images that open up the space for thinking, not shut it down." The other pieces, which will go up in October and December, strive for the same depth and ambiguity that animate much contemporary art.

It's not the only way to go, though. Deborah Rappaport, a board member of Berkeley's new Project Billboard, is less interested in layered meaning or aesthetic contemplation. She wants art that's effective, even if it resembles an ad. The art on her billboards, which she hopes to post across the country "as fast as we can raise the money," must serve the billboard's left-of-center message.

"Just like a shoe company couldn't sell shoes if it didn't have good graphics," she says. "People wouldn't pay attention."

Project Billboard's inaugural effort, which was to go up in Times Square in time for the Republican National Convention, attracted so much attention, in fact, that it almost didn't happen. The billboard was to show a ticking bomb in red, white and blue, accompanied by the phrase "Democracy is best taught by example, not by war."

Clear Channel Communications, the owner of the billboard, objected and blocked the image. Project Billboard filed a breach-of-contract suit and, in a settlement, the bomb was replaced with a similarly attired dove. The new image went up, and an electronic ticker marking the monetary cost of the Iraq war is to be added in time for the convention.

A home for political art

Why the billboard? Artists and organizers say it has become one of the last feasible spaces for political art.

Commercial galleries aren't much interested in political work, says Meltzer, who runs the billboard series through a new nonprofit called Clockshop, which seeks corporate funding for art in public spaces. (In this case, the patron is Viacom, which owns the billboard structure at 6150 Wilshire.)

And alternative, nonprofit venues that traditionally offered political work -- spaces like Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions -- now have less presence than they did a decade or more ago, she says. "So there's a type of art that's disappearing as well -- art that's not commercial or gallery driven."

Things are especially grim in California, Meltzer says, where state arts funding ranks, per capita, last in the nation.

But the problem exists across the country, says Anne Pasternak, president and artistic director of Creative Time, a New York group that puts temporary works of art, including billboards, in public spaces, largely with private funds. The need for private funding from corporations and individuals has made it harder for edgy, political efforts to find a viewing in more traditional spaces, she says.

Even museums can be a hard sell. Boards of directors, Pasternak says, are often somewhat conservative and have more power than in the past, creating new limitations on what can be shown. Artists, she says, in an effort to fit into a more market-driven world, are producing less overtly political work than they did in the '80s, when debates over racism and AIDS energized the New York art world.

"These are important times as well," she says, "as we see our civil liberties eroded and stay involved in a war with a dubious motivation.

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