By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
|Photo by Bill Smith|
PASSING NORTH THROUGH DOWNTOWN ON THE 110 FREEWAY toward Pasadena, between the Third and Fourth Street overpasses, artist Richard Ankrom found himself suddenly confused by the lack of official signage for the 5 North exit. Not clearly labeled overhead like signs for I-5 South, those for the 5 North, which occur two miles later, are haphazardly stuck on a roadside traffic pole, an afterthought at best. Ankrom could have called Caltrans and officially complained, further burdening the beleaguered civic bureaucracy. But being an artist, he did the next best thing:
He fixed it.
That is to say, following explicit specifications he found on the Internet and verified in the field, he crafted a red-white-and-blue "5 shield" and green "North" sign out of 0.080 mm 5053 aluminum, covered it with zinc chromate primer and Pantene colors, added an "age patina" of gray paint, and even special-ordered button reflectors, which are discontinued and stockpiled in a warehouse in Tacoma, Washington. (He had to tell the pesky warehouse clerk it was for a movie -- not altogether untrue, as it turns out.)
After stashing the sign and a ladder in the roadside shrubbery -- and stenciling the side of his truck with the logo "Aesthetic De-Construction" -- he parked on the Third Street bridge just north of the existing sign, set out two orange traffic cones, donned an orange safety vest and hardhat, and physically mounted his homemade handiwork (taking care to sign the back first). He even mocked up a phony invoice, in the event that anyone objected. Yet despite legitimate road crews working the same stretch of freeway, no one seemed to notice.
Nor, in all probability, would they ever have, the sign having functioned perfectly fine since August 5, 2001, when he first erected it. Except that, being an artist, Ankrom felt compelled to document and display his actions in the form of a 10-minute installation video, which was shown at small gallery events and his own Brewery loft during the Art Walk two weeks ago, and has been posted on Netbroad caster.com since November. Opening on a GPS view of L.A.'s 527 miles of freeway, the video documents the entire artistic process from start to finish, culminating in the installation itself, which was witnessed by 11 observers (including the woman who once rescued the Chicken Boy statue from a downtown diner), three of whom were armed with video cameras. It also lists his accomplices by name, including the guy who gave him the haircut that made him look passably respectable, begging the question whether "criminal barberage" is a crime.
And then, against a backdrop of Martin Denny cocktail jazz and Jerry Goldsmith's theme from In Like Flint, there is Ankrom himself, eyes glowing pink in the pre-dawn light, looking like Satan, proclaiming: "I have taken it upon myself to manufacture and install these missing guide signs to ease the confusion and traffic congestion at this section of the 110 freeway."
Like the best art, almost nothing about this action was arbitrary. Interstate 5 links Los Angeles to the Pacific Northwest, where as a child in Washington state, Ankrom used to dream of the pulsing megalopolis which lay Oz-like at the other end of it. Disillusioned with two months of junior college, he hitchhiked to California, where he has been self-employed for the past 20 years -- as a commercial sign painter. (His work can be seen at Ross Dress for Less, in the Moulin Rouge section atop the parking garage at the Universal CityWalk and in several hundred feet of relief-wall lettering at the Santa Anita Racetrack, which he completed while on the end of a 90-foot snorkel lift.) As antecedents, he cites performance artists like Chris Burden, who once had himself nailed to the top of his Volkswagen, as well as De Stijl, a Dutch magazine and group co-founded by Mondrian, which advocated an art which would invisibly blend into its surroundings.
"Essentially it's a conceptual piece," says Ankrom today from the imagined safety of his downtown loft. "It's such a broad swath -- it overlaps into performance and installation and public art and all these other things. I think the most interesting things are controversial. And I'm out on a limb too, because I don't know where I'm going to go with this now. But this is my idea of art. Art should be incorporated more into the government's system of design and concept."
He christens this new utilitarian commando aesthetic "Guerrilla Public Service."
Ankrom's past work generally incorporates the element of social critique. He has fashioned a series of acrylic hatchets, axes and medieval broadswords featuring flower petals suspended in the transparent blades. In response to the L.A. riots, he created a number of neon Taser guns, many with S/M overtones, which used active electric arcs. And long before the recent power crisis, he envisioned an art completely autonomous from the power grid, in the form of a satellite which would collect solar energy and microwave it back to a sculpture installation on Earth. (He plans to discuss the project with an upcoming delegation from the French consulate.)
But it's his recent additions to the 110 freeway, once known as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway between here and Long Beach, which currently preoccupy him -- in no small part due to the legal ramifications which still remain largely unexplored.
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