How Many Billboards

It's never been untrue, exactly, to say that Los Angeles-a driving city with plenty to sell-raises the billboard to the level...

It's never been untrue, exactly, to say that Los Angeles-a driving city with plenty to sell-raises the billboard to the level of art form. Now an exhibition is taking that sentiment literally. Organized by the city's MAK Center for Art and Architecture, the How Many Billboards: Art In Stead project features 21 commissioned pieces by a range of contemporary artists, all with one unique formal constraint: They're on billboards, placed casually amid their commercial peers throughout the center of the city.

Kimberli Meyer, the MAK Center's director and curator of the exhibition, says the idea came to her when she first moved to Los Angeles and found herself forced to stare at an endless parade of signage. "I was struck by how prominent billboards are, and how non-consensual this is," she says. "You can't avoid them like you can avoid commercials on TV." Replacing a few billboards with art would be a reclamation project of sorts. If there had to be such images, some of them should be worth looking at.The results, which went up in February, are eclectic. Several directly engage the advertising theme: A piece by Brandon Lattu features a classified car ad-elevating a low-rent mode to the "fancy form of the billboard," in Meyer's words. Others play with the message tyranny that has made the billboard so alluring to advertisers, either co-opting it for a breather (as in a cooling cloudscape by Kerry Tribe) or rewiring it in its own style (Kenneth Anger's single, massive word: ASTONISH). For Meyer, it's an example of where large-scale urban art can go. And she views this canvas as ripe for continued exploration: "I would love to see a Los Angeles art biennial on billboards."

Top: Artwork by Kerry Tribe. Lower left: Artwork by Jennifer Bornstein. Lower right: Artwork by Kori Newkirk. Bottom: Artwork by Kenneth Anger.All photos by Gerard Smulevich.

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