ASTONISH (by) Kenneth Anger. It could be a daring new cologne. Echoing a marketing language of bold slogans—i.e. Nike’s Just Do It, IBM’s Think, or Apple’s Think Different—the terseness of the all-caps imperative is presumably directed by Anger at the pedestrian or drive-by reader: a command to wake up, startle and be startled, thrill ourselves and each other. Issuing from Anger, a living legend of avant-garde filmmaking, it has the tone of a pep talk from the veteran coach hoping to rouse and motivate younger generations to make astonishing art, challenge expectation in the way we live. Or maybe we are supposed to astonish Anger, maybe he’s the object asking to be shaken: Astonish Kenneth Anger. Astonish and Anger kind of mirror each other grammatically on either side of Kenneth and, in as much they can both be aggressive verbal commands, perhaps point to one in the other—the anger in astonishment and the astonishment in anger; both expressed and repressed in the celebrity autograph.
The overlaid signature, faux-nonchalantly at an angle, turns the artist into a brand— throw-back self-branding? Its orange-red and lilac on black color scheme calls up an ‘80s synth palette. Its combination of block type with slanting handwritten cursive feels vaguely retro. Kenneth Anger’s autograph scrawled in pale purple has the look of a neon sign at night, calling to mind the infamous pink signature of local self-promotional celebrity Angelyne, Hollywood’s billboard queen. Way before today’s socialites and Paris Hilton were potty trained, Angelyne was already famous just for being famous. Since 1984, Angelyne has mounted thousands of billboards throughout Hollywood and LA (as well as other cities, nationally and internationally) to advertise herself as a plastic, pseudo-glamorous, busty, platinum blond, Barbie bombshell. The billboards typically show her name, often as autograph, next to a gigantic Angelyne nearly busting out of her scant costume in some coquettish strip-club pose. Her name and cartoonishly oversexed pin-up image have long been iconic, a veritable part of the Hollywood landscape. I, for one, will never forget the astonishment of spotting her parallel park in her pink corvette. She definitely left an early, lasting mark on my then-nine year old mind. Angelyne still astonishes. Maybe she (and the fame fanatic she represents) is what Anger had in mind here…
Angelyne, in her own words: “I became famous for being on billboards. No one had ever done that before or even thought it was possible, especially without a specific project attached to the advertisements.” Why are you on billboards, Angelyne? “Billboards are huge! I love huge! I am huge! Billboards are what works for me, and I love the attention! My billboards are my Agent. I get calls from all over the world…” And how big have you become with billboards? “I have been on every billboard size imaginable. From 12 feet to 50 feet and everything in between. The biggest I have ever been is on a mural 100 ft tall on a 10 story building in Hollywood which brought me international focus.”
David Lamelas and Yvonne Rainer’s billboards have been fortuitously mounted at the same location, facing opposite directions on Pico Blvd (a bit west of Fairfax Ave), the former facing east and the latter facing west. An idea of goodness, celebrity, and glamour in both make them a good pair. In Lamelas’ billboard, the artist appears as an ambiguously aged punk rocker, leaning forward and gripping the microphone stand with one hand mid-performance. His hair is gelled, slicked back and slicked forward, and the sleeve of his fitted black t-shirt is rolled up, exposing some tattoo. It has the throwback look of a former era—punk—which makes sense since the image references his earlier black-and-white photographic series, Rock Star (Character Appropriation) from 1974, in which he posed as a rock star in the style of the time. The grammatically awkward or incomplete phrase “THINK OF GOOD” sits between the singer and the mic—Is it a line from the song he sings? Is it a reminder from the artist to himself, a kind of placeholder for something good? Is he thinking of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”? And might it not make more sense for him to ‘THINK OF BAD’, as he is posing as a tattooed punk badass?
Rainer’s billboard is a text—”I LOOK GOOD, I KNOW / I CAN’T HEAR / I CAN’T SEE / BUT I LOOK GOOD”—which is quoted from Marlene Dietrich, queen of old Hollywood glamour. It is a puzzling, even disturbing, quote that (taken out of context) privileges vanity, image, celebrity, appearance, and aesthetics over basic sensory perception and bodily ability. It’s a bit frightening really, implying the self-destructive extremes of discipline and manipulation that fame (or just looking good) can require. The stark black-on-white text speaks of the stark condition the strange text describes (as well as a former era of cinema, glamour). The obsession with looking ‘good’ is some death drive here, a mania that entails real loss (of sound and vision). This billboard faces west—to a setting sun and the blonde, botox riches of Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and the Palisades—while Lamelas’ faces east—to the self-conscious hipness of the eastside.
Jennifer Bornstein’s billboard is enlarged from a copperplate etching the artist made of an Eiki 16mm film projector casting a frame that reads “The End” in Old English Text gothic font (like the New York or LA Times title typeface). The cross-hatched image marries etching and film, two of the media Bornstein repeatedly works in, under a pronouncement of some finality, conclusion, culmination, or obsolescence. The by-now increasingly antiquated ways of working have been coupled in her practice before, as she has often produced etchings as studies for film projects.
The billboard is mounted diagonally over the roof of the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church and in front of the Sam Ash Music Store on Sunset Blvd near Martel Ave. The chance siting of this billboard implies site-specific associations. Paired with the church, it alludes forebodingly to mortality, apocalypse, judgment, and salvation. And paired with Sam Ash, it calls up The Doors’ song The End and its iconic use in the opening of Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, or at least it did for one driver.
The Watts Towers, built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia between 1921 and 1955, are located at 1765 East 107th street off Graham Ave, about 17 miles or a half hour from the intersection of La Cienega Blvd and Cadillac Ave where Kira Lynn Harris’ billboard shows a white-on-black inverted image of the Towers and variations on the phrase “Community as Art.” Her billboard temporarily transposes a view of the Watts Towers from their predominantly African-American and Latino working-class neighborhood to the more affluent and predominantly white Culver City. The separation of neighborhoods and demographics that divides the Los Angeles sprawl means that many passing Harris’ billboard will not yet be aware of the Watts Towers nearby, let alone will have never visited those incredible, strange, impossible structures.
Quite explicitly (and especially due to its site up the street from gallery row), the billboard is a call for art activism, for using art to build a sense of community and reconsidering community formation as an artistic act of social creation. In tying this message directly to the Watts Towers, Harris’ billboard is practically an advertisment for LA artist Edgar Arceneaux’s Watts House Project (WHP), “an artist-driven urban revitalization project centered around the historic Watts Towers” (www.wattshouseproject.org). WHP bills itself as “a large-scale artwork-as-urban-development engaging art and architecture as a catalyst for expanding and enhancing community.” Involving neighborhood residents, artists, architects, and many volunteers, WHP undertakes to renovate the homes across the street from the towers, as well as develop an artist-residency program, community-run café with organic garden, and low-income housing. It has raised substantial funds and grants from major institutions as it has grown over the past couple years. Exemplary of the activist work Harris’ billboard describes, WHP may be “community as art/art as community/community is art/art in community/art through community/art and community/ art of community” at its best.
Kori Newkirk’s billboard is amazing. Where Kenneth Anger’s billboard tells us to ASTONISH, his astonishes with his strange and enthralling (self-)portrait, eyes closed and mouth stuffed with a bright white snowball. Sure, the high-contrast white-on-black-on-white scheme points to race and could be read literally—black choking or gagging on white. You can make out strategies connected to Daniel Joseph Martinez, Newkirk’s former teacher at UC Irvine and another participating billboard artist. But, the image suggests much more. It seems to have more to say about bodies in general and sexualized bodies, foreign bodies more specifically. Eyes closed, the figure (of the artist) implies something transcendent—bliss, orgasm. I suppose he could also be enduring bondage or sado-masochistic coersion, the snowball forced into his mouth like a ball-gag.
Opposite MacArthur Park on Wilshire, the snowball is so bizarre and unexpected in the middle of the board (again importing a bit of winter like Kerry Tribe’s storm clouds) that it may not even be recognized as such, or not at first. Its whiteness could be mistaken for a suffocating wad of cotton—a material quite a bit more racially loaded than snow. Formally, it could just as easily be a rabid explosion foaming out of the body as much as a foreign thing lodged in it. It suggests a violent internal chemical reaction, a thick outpouring, and a sudden, fatal solidification of air mid-exhale. It could be a hole blown through the figure’s head, an absence tonally approximating the picture’s gray-white ground. It is viscerally obscene, and all the more thrilling because I’m not totally sure why this should be. Impossible to reduce to a clear message (ad), it totally grabs the pedestrian/driver/skater or baller across the street if he/she happen to look up and actually see it instead of blocking it out like the rest of the streets distractions.
Kerry Tribe’s stormy sky billboard chose a good day to appear. It could almost disappear into Tuesday’s overcast sky. If we keep getting cloudy, rainy days, it will have more chances to vanish. It fulfills a longstanding lazy daydream of mine where a billboard’s surface matches the sky around and behind it, illusionistically transforming opacity into simulated transparency. Or maybe the black and white image of darkening clouds can seem to be a mirrored surface reflecting the sky opposite the board and behind the viewer—an enormous Smithson-like mirror displacement whose symbolic, lofty imagery might point to the ominous past behind us or the threatening future in front of the board. Inevitably engaging heavenly associations, Tribe’s gloomy sky has a basic similarity (but different emotional tone) with that great “nontheist” (atheist and agnostic) billboard campaign launched nationally by the United Coalition of Reason (unitedcor.org) in which short, pithy declarations (such as, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” and, “Are you good without God? Millions are.”) float over a sunnier image of blue sky and clouds.
The huge swath of bad weather also parodically undercuts the mythos of sunny California where the sky is always blue, palm trees a-wavin’. Maybe, when it isn’t disappearing into rain clouds, the billboard will serve as a foil and I’ll be reminded of how ridiculously ideal LA’s weather is.
Artwork by Kerry Tribe
Photo: Gerard Smulevich
We launch the blog having just gleefully witnessed the exhibition’s first two known installations, the Kerry Tribe commission on La Brea just north of Venice, and the Kori Newkirk on Wilshire just west of Lafayette Park! Check our map for precise locations: http://www.howmanybillboards.org
Now that the exhibition is live, I am pleased to introduce Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer as our blogger in residence. Also posting here will be John Pearson with suggestions for play lists of songs to listen to while you are seeing the exhibition, as well as various project participants and associates and MAK Center staff.