Making It In America

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Yvonne Rainer, Pico Blvd, west of Fairfax Ave. Photo by Gerard Smulevich. Courtesy MAK Center.

Billboards promoting HBO’s How To Make It In America began appearing in Los Angeles in January, or at least that’s when I began noticing them. They didn’t make sense because they weren’t any of the things billboards often are: explicitly sexy, youth-worshiping, polarizing, lush for no reason, symmetrical, centered, excessively air-brushed, heavy-handed, copy-desk clever or instantly legible. Instead they were ambiguous and blurry.

The How to Make It ads featured an out-of-focus, slightly claustrophobic photograph of genuinely pretty people occupying fore-shortened space. The relationships betweens these people were ambiguous at best. The typical white guy in the foreground, who had a wary, doe-eyed face and unusually large ears, was definitely aware of the camera, but the laughing girl with her hand on his chest seems to be aware of a whole different sort of reality–she looked like she was performing happiness at a well-populated party. In the background (which, because of the weirdly collapsed space, isn’t too far from being the foreground), an African-American man with a self-conscious smirk apparently listened to the advice, or the comedy, of the Latino man leaning into him. At first I thought “making it” must be a commentary on the sexual landscape of America today—maybe the show would deal with the ambiguity of same-sex versus hetero relationships, in a landscape in which race occupied an especially undefined space and technology mediated love—but neither of the “couples” in the image actually acted like couples. So maybe “making it” was economic, about social climbing. When I googled the show and found it followed two 20-somethings bent on breaking into the designer jeans business, the haze didn’t exactly lift.

Kerry Tribe, La Brea Ave, north of Venice Blvd. Photo by Gerard Smulevich. Courtesy MAK Center.

When billboards are interesting in this way, I get suspicious, because I assume someone, somewhere, is trying to pull one over on me. When art is interesting in this way, however, I get excited.

The MAK Center for Art and Architecture launched a public art exhibition on L.A. billboards last month. Curator Kimberli Meyer and her team secured the donated commercial space with the help of MacDonald Media, and commissioned well-established conceptual artists like Yvonne Rainer and Kenneth Anger, along with newer names like Kerry Tribe and Brandon Lattu to design images. The “Art In Stead” billboards pop up in Glendale, Hollywood, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Pico and the Mid-City Area. They’re supposed to “exhibit” for a month, but they occasionally disappear and reappear unannounced, proof, perhaps, that “donated” means “at the mercy of Clear Channel.”

Christina Frenandez, Hollywood Blvd, west of Bronson. Photo by Patricia Parinejad. Courtesy MAK Center.

Christina Frenandez, Hollywood Blvd, west of Bronson. Photo by Patricia Parinejad. Courtesy MAK Center.

Interviewed by Francis Anderton in February, Meyer said,

“The idea is to look at the landscape of Los Angeles, which is dominated by billboards, and think about what it would be like if artists were making some of the images that we were seeing these signs.”

What it would be like, apparently, doesn’t differ too much from what it’s like already—some billboards would be visually arresting, some would be genuinely confusing, some would make you think and some would fleeting pound you with a too-easy-to-dismiss message. But what this exhibition does extraordinarily well, better than any museum-bound institutional critique in recent memory has: it shows how subservient the display of art is to capitalist power structures. And it shows art can potentially subvert that subservience, though only a little.

The exhibition took years of negotiation and, according to LA Weekly‘s Erica Zora Wrightson, the artists’ proposals were all screened by the donating companies. As a result, the most provocative work indulges in ambiguity, like Christina Frenandez’s meditation on the literal landscape of economic devastation, or, my favorite, Yvonne Rainer’s Marlene Dietrich quote, written in black letters on white, and hanging above a fish and chips sign: “I look good/I know/I can’t hear/I can’t see/but I look good.” It’s a deceptively tame cry for attention that protests the way the sleek culture of advertising erases the space between voice, person-hood and  image.