Song of the Open Road
I think that I shall never see
A billboard as lovely as a tree.
Perhaps unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
October 15, 1932, The New Yorker.
Think of a cave drawing writ large—art off the prehistoric walls pressed into the service of selling something. Billboards emerged in the latter part of the 1800s when viewers were captured not by clicks, but by another kind of traffic.
Walking down an urban street or stuck behind the wheel (usually congestion plays a part), there is no alternative but to become a looky-loo and suck it all in. Call it the information highway before it became super.
If a picture is worth 1,000 words how much should a ginormous public one go for? While some commercial signage could be artful, it’s far from an art form, and more often than not, amounts to blight.
I am a writer, curator, lecturer, and dealer of modern and contemporary art; but it’s the selling component that funds the rest, so I am used to trading in graphic images that communicate (conceptual) messages, and know quite a bit about the time and effort that is required to convince (very) fickle customers to buy. Whether flogging canvas or cognac, many of the strategies stay the same.
In a sense, art becomes a private billboard that advertises the collector’s status and taste. Unlike the intimate personal experience of engaging with art—wherein the audience will usually be limited, and not (at least I hope) involuntary—billboards are designed to speak to the widest audience possible.
There are many similarities in the notion of value in contemporary art vs. advertising. Both drive an agenda. Both manipulate people and expand a market. It is of little consequence that a corporation or artistic impresario has paid a team of fabricators to produce a work that will—without any tacit approval—attempt to contort our attitudes and behavior. Advertising is sanctioned by the state, but not by the individual that it targets—though then again, nor is Jeff Koons.
Los Angeles is carpet-bombed with billboards. The visceral experience akin to an action movie trailer, or—when you see enough in succession—filmic like a flick book. This accounts for the perception of L.A. as a city where everyone is car-captive to the extent that Beverly Hills resembles a post-neutron bomb landscape entirely bereft of pedestrians.
In London, where I live—other than Trafalgar Square which resembles New York’s Times Square (but with worse dentistry)—there is far less billboard bombardment. In the UK there seems to be more regard for the sanctity of architecture and the built environment, oh yeah, and for regulatory planning.
Advertising has become so generic and fungible around the world that the real differences in content from one geographic destination to another are negligible. In any event, more or less all the biggest companies are owned by a tiny cabal of multinationals—call it the age of McSame-ness.
Sometimes advertising is capable of reaching deep and touching a vein in the public consciousness. There the billboard can become an agent for social and political change, such as when Saatchi & Saatchi masterminded the landmark British Conservative party campaign slogan in 1979, “Labour still isn’t working.” This engineered a national election victory and, for better or worse, helped to usher in the age of Thatcherism. The American version was the more saccharine, derivative (but equally persuasive), Hope sign by Shepard Fairey, yet he’s certainly no substitute for Charles or Maurice with their risqué humor and double (or more) meanings.
Though Julian Schnabel is known for paintings on a scale often exceeding that of billboards, some artists actually engage the medium as intended, using it to reach out to a broad, general interest spectrum of a given community.
There is a long association of artists and billboards. Either helping to paint like them as James Rosenquist did before the advent of large scale mechanical reproduction (and his career took off), or Ed Ruscha, who frequently references America’s quest for the perfectly concise soundbite via roadside signs that convey far more meaning than the economy of words would typically permit. Nowadays, you are just as likely to see an artist like Jeff Koons or Yayoi Kusama selling handbags via billboards rather than using the medium as a fine art form. Two profound instances of artist-created billboards tailor-made for the medium were those of David Hammons and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
In 1989, Hammons erected a billboard on a corner in Washington D.C. in conjunction with the Washington Project for the Arts’ outdoor exhibition; “The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism.” The work, entitled “How Ya Like Me Now” depicted a blonde, blue-eyed, white skinned Rev. Jesse Jackson. The piece—critical of the perceived complicity of leaders such as Jackson and others—was in turn sledgehammered by a group of protesting black youths. When public art is utilized as a tool of social provocation the repercussions can be volatile, whether as intended or unforeseen.
In 1991, Felix Gonzalez-Torres created a black and white photograph of an empty bed, sheet, and top sheet with two pillows that still had the ghostly impressions of the presence of recently sleeping bodies. The billboard was a haunting memorial evoking loss, lament, helplessness and regret: Torres’s boyfriend died of AIDS in 1991 and the artist himself prematurely passed from the disease in 1996 at the age of 38.
Far less successful and impactful was the 1995 Damien Hirst version. A for-the-market, gallery bound version of a “Tri-vision rotating billboard,” which alternated between the images of a pickle and jar of Vaseline, a hammer and a peach, before morphing into the text: “The problem with relationships.” The inscrutable, mildly puerile non sequitur was probably a symptom of the time. It was fabricated when the artist first came into oodles of cash following the initial burst of his market explosion, and was coupled to his very public brush with substance exploration. In any event, it’s got the key ingredients of a signature Hirst: very large and grandiose (and equally vacuous). Attributes many contemporary artists seem to relish these days.
What, if any, billboards can you remember? They are one-hit wonders comprised of pitches for fast cars, fast food, strip clubs, and strip malls: sexy, funny, or informative, but rarely in combination. And few if any have an afterlife beyond a quick drive-by.
One that I can’t forget—not for lack of trying—starred Pia Zadora, a singer and actress of the 1980s who, funded by her husband Meshulam Riklis, took out a billboard advertising her self-proclaimed (if questionable) gifts—hat’s off for a proto-selfie of enormous proportions and ambition.
How will the billboard of the future appear? Already we are confronted with ever-higher production-values that incorporate tasteless 3-D objects boggling the eyes for cheesy dramatic effect. Soon we might be confronted with narrative, multi-panel stories, or participatory signage exploiting your ever-smarter smart phone in increasingly convoluted fireworks shows of technological wizardy (we wait with baited breath).
One thing is for certain; we are a peripatetic populous on the move, more so now than ever, passing through an accelerating day and night, besieged by a rising barrage of more (and more, and much more) gratuitous adverting imagery, that hurtles towards our eyeballs in shapes yet imagined, but in a form that we can still call billboard.
Photography: Robert Landau.
Images Courtesy: Robert Landau and Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, (2012), Angel City Press, Santa Monica.