New York

“California Billboards”

New York City

“California Billboards,” sponsored by the Eyes and Ears Foundation in San Francisco, Fashion Moda, and the Public Art Fund in New York, consisted of seven billboards by artists, put up in different sections of New York with technical assistance from Foster and Kleiser Outdoor Advertising. All of the artists involved in the project are or have been based in California, and the painted canvases mounted on billboards around the city were originally commissioned by the Eyes and Ears Foundation for an outdoor exhibition on the West Coast. The artists were Karen Carson, Sri Chinmoy, Jack Frost, Masashi Matsumoto, Neon Park, Horace Washington, and Paul Whitehead.

Images range from abstract to representational, and subjects vary from artist to artist. What they all share is an ironic attitude toward commercial advertising. One image, for example, shows a creature from another planet riding through the heavens while he unzips the universe and points to a small rectangle that looks very much like a major credit card. Paul Whitehead, the artist, is playing with the kind of liberation messages that advertisements, for “plastic money” in particular, exalt. Other billboards play on the style of sharp-focus realism used by most commercial advertising. Neon Park’s somewhat fuzzy image of a German shepherd with antlers sitting in a lush forest setting was located above the hectic shopping district at 14th Street and Broadway, in a group of “real” billboards advertising such things as a newspaper, a radio station, and a fast-food chain. To say that this hybrid dog/deer looked weird here is no surprise. The same disorientation occurred with Sri Chinmoy’s all-over composition of green, yellow, orange, and black marks adorning a billboard placed next to a crisply specific red sign for a major brand of cigarettes.

Like Alex Katz’s 1977 billboard in Times Square, the most famous of this genre in New York, the California billboards need only one glance to provoke questions about what they were doing where they were. The answer in all cases was the same, of course—artists’ billboards are pushing art.

Ronny H. Cohen