Public Art in Billboard Form

Roy McMakin, Favorite Color, 2010 [via]
Roy McMakin, Favorite Color, 2010 [via]

Public art is commonly (and often rightfully) criticized for being too safe and inoffensive. Public funds demand public consensus, which means we are usually left with the lowest common denominator – something that no one could possibly be offended or inspired by. André Breton famous dictum – “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all” – seems not to apply to public art, where people would rather choose lack of beauty than suffer the convulsions.

Which is why privately funded public art is often better than that using taxpayer dollars. A new project funded by private donors aims to counter this trend by taking the greatest hits of American art out of museums and placing them on 500,000 outdoor advertising structures in all fifty states. Art Everywhere US will feature 58 (North) American artworks from five major museums chosen by you, the public, to grace billboards, bus shelters, and subway posters nationwide from August 4th – 31st. While the prospect of gazing at Grant Wood’s American Gothic or Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge while waiting for the bus is certainly a more appealing option than staring slack-jawed at a Mountain Dew ad, the populist campaign is drawing criticism from some. Famed ad man Peter Arnell of all people, is skeptical, telling the New York Times it will be “demeaning to the art” since “people will perceive the art as advertising.” And in a sense it is advertising, enticing people to go into one of the five participating museums to see the work in person. But it remains to be seen if people will actually be drawn to these institutions, when they can glimpse an Edward Hopper or Jasper Johns from the comfort of their car as they cruise down the freeway.

Catherine Opie, The Shores, 2013 [via Rainey Knudson]
Catherine Opie, The Shores, 2013

A similar project that navigates the challenges and pitfalls of public art is the Murals of La Jolla in San Diego. Since 2010 a rotating selection of site-specific murals and vinyl billboards have graced the sides of buildings throughout the city. Turn a corner and you can find a work by artists as diverse as John Baldessari, Gajin Fujita, or Ann Hamilton. One reason for the success of the project is the fact that it is privately funded and located on private property, thereby skirting the issues that compromise so many pieces of public art. This is not to say that the work is created or sited without concern for its audience. Many of the works directly address life in Southern California, such as Catherine Opie’s image of surfers or Fred Tomaselli’s homage to Chula Vista Chicano punk band the Zeros. To create his mural, Roy McMakin asked a group of locals what their favorite colors were.

In an attempt to channel energy from this public project back into the gallery, Quint Gallery has asked artists who participated in the mural project to recommended an underrepresented or emerging artist. Their choices will be shown in a group exhibition “Horizon,” which opens this Saturday and runs through September 6th. Notable picks include Rashell George, James Enos and Heather Rasmussen. After all, shouldn’t the role of public art be to broaden our horizons, not just recycle familiar images?


also by Matt Stromberg

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