Missing the message in billboard art

GEOFFREY JAMES February 9 1987

Missing the message in billboard art

GEOFFREY JAMES February 9 1987

Missing the message in billboard art


There is something about extravaganzas like world fairs and Olympic games that induce, in the closed realm of the visual arts, a condition akin to crisis. The reason lies less in the nature of the events themselves than in the pressure they put on visual artists to perform publicly. In its acute form, the problem is how to create works of art that simultaneously speak to a large, uninitiated public and function in oftendifficult outdoor spaces, while also satisfying the inner impulses of their creators. The most recent case in point is Art on Billboards, conceived by the organizers of the Calgary Olympics. But the works selected again demonstrate how difficult it is to reconcile those creative tensions.

Calgary’s Canadian antecedent, of course, was the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal. There, the visual

arts showcase was Corridart, a series of projects by 16 artists along eight kilometres of the city’s once-elegant Sherbrooke Street. Corridart was something of a mixed bag: land art, conceptual pieces, pop sculpture and agitprop. The toughest element was a se-

ries of scaffolds carrying a giant hand that literally pointed a finger at the many tears in the city’s urban fabric.

Corridart marched under the banner of art for social change. But for former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau it was

merely visual pollution. “One does not need to be an expert to know whether an egg smells good or bad,” he said later, by way of justification. Just a few days before the Games opened, Drapeau sent in a fleet of bulldozers, trucks and cherry pickers. And that,

barring a long and unsuccessful legal bid by some of the artists for compensation, was the end of Corridart. Now, with the 1988 Games only a year away, it appears that the largest single element of the visual arts program will also be a nonstarter. One of the duties of the XV Olympic Winter Games Organizing Committee, known

as OCO, was to commission a $250,000 work for the Olympic Plaza, the downtown site for the nightly medal ceremonies. After much intercommittee wrangling, a three-member jury finally selected the Paris-based husband-

and-wife team of Ann and Patrick Poirier.

The furore that greeted the Poiriers’ winning of the Calgary commission had nothing to do either with their earlier work or with their stature as artists— but with the fact that they were not Canadian. Under pressure from local artists and others who felt that OCO should favor Canadian artists, the city council voted 9 to 4 not to accept them as designers for a sculpture that would have been erected on city-owned property. As a result, any chosen design will not be completed until after the games conclude.

Art on Billboards, OCO’s second public art program, promises to be less contentious. The project aims to place works by artists—predominantly Canadians—

on those large, backlit advertising panels that normally extol the pleasures of pantyhose and cigarettes. The idea is paved with good intentions and generous corporate sponsorship. Mediacom, the company that owns and fabricates many of the billboards, has donated 25 per cent of the program’s $400,000 cost. For that, Canadians will see over the next 14 months works by eight artists in eight different cities—Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Halifax and Edmonton. Six of the eight artists—each of whom will receive $5,000—have already been chosen; the other two, says the Olympics’ visual art supervisor, Karyn Allen Keenan, will likely be selected from outside the country.

Last month the organizers unveiled the first three billboards—by Nova Scotian Alex Colville and Toronto artists Barbara Astman and Arnaud Maggs. Still to be launched is the work of Newfoundland’s Christopher Pratt, ToronI

to’s David Bolduc and Medrie MacPhee, an Edmonton-born painter living in New York. Astman, Maggs and Bolduc designed new works specifically for billboard display, while the other artists provided existing pieces that will be adapted to fit the format.

But whether they are glimpsed from an expressway or in the visual hubbub of downtown Toronto, the billboards are a reminder that, for some time now, the chief burden of pictorial representation has been borne by the mass media and advertising. Any incursion of personal imagery into the manipulated world of marketing is welcome. But the question remains whether these art works are strong enough to hold their own in an image-saturated environment.

Framed by large expanses of black,

and accompanied both by an unfortunate, oversized Olympic Arts Festival logo and the artist’s surname, the images themselves lose much of the impact of scale that they could have had if they filled the entire 10-by-20-foot billboard. Astman’s work, in particular, seems curiously tentative—an attempt at theatricality in which heavy red velvet curtains open onto a night sky crammed with hard-to-decipher astrological symbols.

Arnaud Maggs has more directly addressed the Olympic theme, and in this he is alone among the participants. A photographer and onetime graphic designer, Maggs is best known for his vast and obsessive collective portrait of the Toronto art scene, in which every species is photographed front and side, as if by a dispassionate taxonomist. Maggs has given the front-and-side treatment to skier Ken Read, but this time his subject is helmeted, besuited and crouched in the classic downhill tuck. The artist

has adopted the visual language of advertising, apparently without questioning it. Contemplating the image and the artist’s surname beneath it, it is easy to conclude that Maggs is the brand name of the latest ski goggles.

With the work of Alex Colville, Art on Billboards becomes a medium for reproducing the already well-known. Like Pratt, his onetime student, Colville is the closest thing Canada has to a popular artist, short of a bird painter. His billboard does in fact consist of birds, seven huge crows circling ominously over a shadowless countryside that induces a vague sense of anxiety. Pratt is represented by one of his glacially cool paintings of his yacht, while Medrie MacPhee, whose work is indebted to the 1930s American social realist painter Edward Hopper, continues the nautical theme with a picture of a boat in shallow water. Only David Bolduc has produced a painting specifically created for the sumptuous backlit effects of the billboard. His large watercolor of a night cityscape is a romantic version of the reality it mirrors, its sky filled with large, childlike markings.

But the problem with Art on Billboards is not so much one of quality as concept: the works simply fail to address the world of advertising. For all its weaknesses, Corridart was an attempt to draw people’s attention to their environment. Art on Billboards, a sign of the times, is less an exercise in public art than in publicity for artists.