L.A. Billboard Artists Make
Public Art Statements

In its February/March issue, Mother Jones magazine ran an article on political poster artist Robbie Conal, whose It Can't Happen Here, with the "here" across the forehead of the portrait of a wrinkled George Bush, was up and around L.A. during election season. When asked whether he planned to cultivate museum interest in his political art, Conal was quoted as saying, "I lust after billboards." Conal has retreated to his studio, but someone seems to have taken him up on the idea of billboards.

There it is, near a busy intersection in Santa Monica, a billboard by artist Daniel J. Martinez. Two dogs are flying, mouths open, teeth bared, from either side of the billboard's white background at a hand reaching down from some sky of human privilege, or heaven of humanity, and spooning sauce on the dogs'-- meatloaf? Across the top, the only thing advertised is the cliché "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."

Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You is one of three artists' billboards unveiled this past December by Patrick Media Group, a large outdoor ad firm, and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) and selected from over 200 proposals by a panel of five significant Los Angeles curators and artists. Notable among them is John Baldessari, whose own work with film stills is often considered to have helped break down the barrier between "fine" art and the "media" (or to have opened up the possibility of media-critical art). All three artists are political in more subtle ways than Conal's scathingly appropriate portraits of political figures; they call attention to the more commonplace powers of rhetorical and visual persuasion of a postmodern mass-media dominated culture. The other two billboards are by artists Hilja Keading and Robert Zoell.

Martinez's Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You is perhaps the most outrageous. The dogs are in direct violation of the cliché. The cliché‚ is one which human beings who have power and control over other people's livelihoods can use to pacify (make passive) those other people. It is a kind of veiled threat, easily internalized by whole populations of isolated individuals who live in continual fear of unemployment. The statement addresses you, and the picture represents you as a dog. In other words, if the hand that feeds you treats you like a dog, you might well feel like biting it. The billboard feeds on your subliminal resentment against being economically used and abused, which no amount of mere sauce on your dogfood can placate. It plays on your resentment of economic power monopolized rather than shared.

Hilja Keading's Liposuction is art about the psychological strategies of advertising itself; or as Keading herself has said, "It represents the consequences of artificiality and the promise of immediate gratification." In it the word liposuction is spelled out in peppermint candy canes against three panels of nearly the same idyllic picture-puzzle painting of a pine tree and a snow-covered Matterhorn--a sly and quiet allusion to Disneyland's Southern California landmark. The triple background--in triplicate to emphasize that it is art--suggests the complicity of some art in the commodification of desire. The paintings represent a vacationer's experience that very few people will be able to afford, yet which they are encouraged to prefer over more proximate and accessible experiences of nature (and other human beings?). This art could definitely be considered art-ificial. It directs desire into remote and impossible channels where it is bound to be frustrated.

The candy canes, of course, are the "promise of immediate gratification." In advertising proper, they would be the commodity substitutes for the experience one could not hope to have, as the fancy car becomes the substitute for the obviously unavailable exotically beautiful woman who by repetition in so many ads becomes the voyeuristic standard which is supposed to direct all male desire. But in Keading's billboard the candy canes spell out one of the consequences of advertising's play on desire. If you suck on those candy canes as a substitute for the impossible vacation, you may end up in the liposuctionist's office.

The more one thinks about Liposuction, the more claustrophobic one feels. The billboard gives one two unsatisfactory choices-the impossible vacation and the possible substitute gratification with dehumanizing consequences. It represents the impossible emotional binds and reduced options that an advertising culture can inflict on its subjects.

Bob Zoell's It's Not So Much What You See, But Rather That You See seems to me to be the most difficult piece, and possibly the least rewarding, in the LACE/Patrick Media trilogy. It is obviously a graphic art pun. That you can barely read the text, due to the billboard's potpourri of letter sizes and their stretched-out, squat shapes, does suggest that the message, as the message itself states, doesn't much matter, even though one does eventually decipher it.

But the graphic framing of the message also suggests the two-tiered red and green parking signs in Los Angeles, the top red ones telling one that one can be towed (between certain graphically small hours), and the lower green ones that one can park (between certain graphically small hours). If one forgets to read the double fine print, out of confusion or haste or because one is used to simpler signs, the city will lay siege either to your cash or your car. I know. I'm an out-of-towner who got one of those tickets.

When we refer the billboard to its framing visual metaphor, then, it does matter "what you see." Of course, it also matters "that you see" it first, but not simply "that you see." One needs to see it as a parking sign and to read it carefully. In other words, the visual frame of the billboard contradicts the vacuous message that it contains. And perhaps that's the joke. We supposedly know better than what the billboard says, since we are visually trained to recognize parking signs and to read them, since force of the law speaks silently in them. But it is also true that more than one person has been betrayed by the visual mixed message of L.A.'s red and green parking signs.

All of the LACE/Patrick Media billboards take their medium, the billboard or the mass-produced sign, seriously and reflect on its use or use it in provocative ways. Martinez's dog piece asks us to reflect on what life is like at the site of production (the job) on the other side of the commodity that the ordinary billboard advertises as a simple object of consumption. How do the companies which produce those commodities treat their workers and their lives? Hilja Keading's Liposuction demonstrates the ways in which advertising culture, by invading the realm of the psyche, can mess up people's emotional and even physical lives. Bob Zoell's parking sign verges on the insight that the law, which we recognize visually and habitually in parking signs but which we often leave blithely up to our legislators, profoundly structures our everyday lives. Not bad accomplishments for three works of art.


© Peter Kosenko, unpublished (January 1989).


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