TRAVELING by subway in Los Angeles involves a kind of magical thinking. To get the most out of the city's Metro Rail system, you need an open mind but also blind optimism.
It's not simply that Angeleno life has been literally mapped out around cars and that commuting by subway in these parts is viewed as an alternative lifestyle decision even more radical than driving a Prius. It's that to travel beneath a city regularly wracked by earthquakes -- even in an era when gas prices have soared above $3 a gallon -- demands considerable faith that the Big One isn't going to hit.
Then there's the art.
Since 1989, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has earmarked one-half of 1% of all rail construction costs toward the creation of original, site-specific artwork. So now, from Pasadena to the South Bay, Watts to North Hollywood, the MTA displays a trove of museum-worthy modern art pieces and installations at its Metro Rail stops.
In the daily hustle and flow of millions of straphangers, however, much of it remains hidden in plain sight. Which is a shame, because as public arts initiatives go, Metro Rail's is world class. Put another way, the transit system -- as opposed to the places the trains take you -- has evolved into a cultural destination in and of itself.
"Most of the folks who take our tours have never been in our system before," says MTA public art officer Jeffrey Mohr. "After that they're surprised that there's art work in there. And from there, they can't believe the scope of it."
Much MTA-sanctioned artwork reflects the Southland's ethnic diversity; stylized images of Mexican American pachucos, Gold Rush-era Chinese laborers and black civil rights demonstrators are linked via underground (and aboveground) railroad. Moreover, the art often provides a meta-narrative commentary about aboveground goings-on.
To wit: Daniel Martinez's "For Your Intellectual Entertainment," a sculpture at the Green Line's El Segundo/Nash station, features a 30-foot-tall wire-mesh hand rising between the tracks, poised to launch a massive "paper airplane" made out of metal -- a metaphorical nod to defense and aerospace plants located nearby.
The only thing left to do is ride the rails. For a $3 all-day fare, art appreciators can have an enriching cultural experience that is at once totally L.A. and totally unique in a city where public life and public transportation have never been particularly cherished.
A glimpse of what awaits you.
They float silently, swayed by gusts of wind from passing trains near the ceiling of this Red Line station -- six life-size fiberglass figures that constitute Jonathan Borofsky's installation sculpture "I Dreamed I Could Fly." Arms and legs splayed outward in cowabunga posture, the statues -- all of them male, barefoot and clad in jeans and T-shirts -- were inspired by the artist's recurring dreams of flight.
They also recall suicide jumpers, however, creating a somewhat jarring juxtaposition viewed alongside the subway.
7TH STREET / METRO
Descending by escalator from the Hope Street entrance, a ceramic triptych calls attention to the passenger's allegorical journey underground. Titled "Heaven to Earth," by Roberto Gil de Montes, it transposes figurative images that are, by turns, heavenly, earthly and womb-like: a morning glory vine wrapped around a cane, a bird silhouetted by sunset, a lush garden.
Deeper down, a set of seven light boxes created by artist Sam Erenberg line the wall on the westbound platform. Each box features someone holding or contemplating a book -- hence the piece's title, "The Complete Works of Roland Barthes." Again, the meta-narrative thing comes into play: It's part of an ongoing temporary installation series in which artist commissions reconsider subway commuters' cherished pastime. No, not the iPod -- reading.
Both Chavez Ravine and Chung King Road's pagoda roofs and fluttering paper lanterns are clearly visible from the open-air 33-foot-high platform of the Gold Line's Chinatown station. But then, the red, gold and green station is no slouch in the pagoda department, boasting its own curving pagoda-style roof on the passenger platform -- a tribute to the Chinese workers who helped build America's railroads in the 1800s.
At the station, artist Chusien Chang created four benches meant to reflect the changing face of Chinatown's community. But the station's must-see holding is the artist's granite "I Ching" dial. Sixteen feet in diameter, the piece (titled "The Wheels of Change") contains a magnetic compass radiating 64 hexagrams, detailing what the "I Ching" (a 3,000-year-old Chinese philosophical text) puts forth as the 64 states of the human condition.
HOLLYWOOD / VINE
An altogether more lighthearted, mash-up take on local culture prevails here on the Red Line (Hollywood / Vine boasts the most elaborate installations and highest concentration of art).