The faded mocha edifice that until last year housed CBS’s Columbia Square studios looks at first glance completely abandoned. On giant placards that once displayed pristine, smiling headshots of the KCBS news team, the local newscasters now sport spray-painted Marilyn Monroe wigs, Warhol style. On another billboard, hand-scrawled letters spelling “Life Is Beautiful” drip as if they had been painted in fresh blood.
Is it good old vandalism, or signs of life?
Aficionados of Los Angeles street art might recognize the now-familiar work of one “Mr. Brainwash,” a.k.a. MBW, a.k.a. Thierry Guetta, a French filmmaker turned graffiti provocateur. Over the past few months, Mr. Brainwash images have become ubiquitous in greater Hollywood, evolving from the Banksy-style black-and-white stencils of a guy wielding a movie camera to repurposed reproductions of Elvis, Hendrix, Gandhi and other cultural icons, including the giant spray-paint can rebranded, à la Andy, as Campbell’s Tomato Spray. These MBW specials are wheat-pasted up and down the La Brea corridor, the Miracle Mile, Melrose, Fairfax . . . anyplace with an unadorned utility box or blank wall.
Now Guetta is about to unleash an art happening at Columbia Square so audacious in scale and ambition that it will either make him an instant art star or an object of derision, a high-profile lesson in the perils of the vanity DIY spectacle. Either way, the opening party is going to be fabulous.
Early on a Monday evening, I meet up with a couple of art insiders, curious to get a look at the evolving gallery space that Guetta is carving out for the solo show of his work set to open June 18. Inside the old CBS building, cables and wires (some of them live) hang from the ceiling. Stacks of books and boxes of film canisters line the walls. A couple of screen-prints are tacked to a wall. Editing bays have been turned into “vaults” — one holds hundreds of gold-painted spray cans, “the modern gold,” as Guetta says, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the prices graffiti art gets at auction these days. In fact, Guetta has already presold an estimated $100,000 of art work to help finance the show and pay rent through September on the building, which a developer plans to raze for a 40-story skyscraper, Hollywood’s tallest.
“I see art everywhere here,” exclaims Guetta, who broke his foot after falling off a ladder the day before and is giving us his tour on crutches. “I’ve been working for months and my ideas are always changing. This is my first show and I wanted to bring it to Los Angeles. It will be like nothing anyone has seen.”
Guetta isn’t the guy you’d figure to have such a large solo show in Los Angeles. He was introduced to the world of street art nine years ago as a documentary filmmaker, though he claims to have sold paintings to Michael Jackson in the ’80s. It was only after collecting hundreds of hours of footage of Shepard Fairey, Banksy and other international street-art stars that he decided he might like to try his hand at art. The film, meanwhile, remains unfinished. Banksy — who has said of Guetta, “Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature; he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way” — is threatening to do a movie about the documentary Guetta never made.
At the moment, Guetta isn’t thinking about film, but about his plans to paint 100,000 shoes green and then hang them in the trees of Columbia Square. He’ll be bringing over a 15-foot-tall takeout bag, complete with receipt, which he constructed at his nearby studio as an homage to Claes Oldenburg. And he’s recruited graffiti artists to fill the walls that he can’t get to himself. There’s a lot of space to fill, and he’s got just over two weeks before the opening to pull this off.
Fortunately, he’s got friends in high and low places. Daniel Salin, a get-it-done guy who produced Banksy’s “Barely Legal” L.A. debut in 2006, is the show’s producer, though Guetta is largely financing the project himself. (Guetta won’t confirm rumors that he and his family own commercial real estate on Melrose.) In addition, Swindle co-founder and art agent Roger Gastman and his partner Sonja Teri are consultants for the show. And when Guetta didn’t want to pay the estimated $80,000 contractors quoted to clear out the leftover office debris at the CBS space, he placed an ad on Craigslist with some photos and the offer, “Everything Free.” By morning, he had 15 moving trucks lined up outside and crews to take away the miscellaneous office furniture and scrap metal.
For all of Guetta’s moxie, there are questions about the validity of his art — which is most often compared to Banksy — and the way he’s inserting himself into the scene. What seems to temper these complaints is the fact that he hasn’t alienated the artists you’d think he’d be in competition with. Though he does confound them.
On Guetta’s “Life Is Beautiful” Web site, Shepard Fairey is quoted as saying, “Mr. Brainwash is an enigma. I want to hug him one second and smack him the next. He is awesome, infuriating, almost impossible to define. But if an artist is defined by relentless, obsessive passion, then MBW is definitely an artist.”
“If you’re asking me to compare this show with Banksy’s,” Salin tells me, “all I can say is that the MBW show is a completely independent art show put on by the artist himself without any outside help from a gallery, museum or sponsorship of any kind [Banksy’s shows are also independent]. And though MBW was more than likely influenced by Banksy’s guerrilla-style hit-and-run shows that pop up in a random, sometimes-abandoned space — making you feel, ‘Where did this come from and why doesn’t it happen more often?’ then next thing you know, it’s gone — you can’t really compare the two. It’s like comparing apples and dirty socks. Oh, yeah, and there’s no elephant to paint in the MBW show.”
Two days after my first visit, I return to Columbia Square and am greeted by a miraculous sight: a 30-foot robot constructed from vintage televisions that Guetta has collected for more than a year. All of the sets are on — the ones that don’t work are unceremoniously dropped from the scaffolding — and are displaying different test patterns. Awesome. Most of the books have made their way into wall cubbies built to invite visitors to read or write on the pages with supplied markers. More of the infamous MBW stencils have made it onto the walls, and newly finished oil paintings are being carried away for framing. Guetta has replaced his old-school crutches with a set of fancy scooter wheels, which allow him more mobility. His amped-up energy is indicative of the progress being made. The team has probably only slept a couple of hours in the past week, but there is no tension, only excitement. A buzz is building tonight as the legendary D.C. graf artist Cool Disco Dan stops by on his way through town to throw a few tags while one of the police cars Guetta has purchased is delivered to the entrance lawn.
A couple of photographers show up and start shooting. The BBC calls. Seven-foot sea creatures built from film canisters peer out from around formerly blank corners, dripping with the cables cut from the walls. There are a Hopperesque diner counter and window from Nighthawks, waiting to be twisted into a Mr. Brainwash version of the famous painting.
“I was going to put skeletons in there dressed as the original characters, but that’s too negative,” Guetta explains. “I’m a positive guy! Life is beautiful. So my idea is changing again. Maybe I’ll get actors to dress up as Warhol and stand in there, or maybe I’ll break the window and make it an abandoned building — like modern times!”
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There is already a tricked-out alley in the space behind the “diner” with a shopping cart and garbage. Cool Disco Dan throws up a tag and Guetta pauses for a portrait. We cut through the room to the original entrance of the studios on Sunset. It had been blocked off, used by CBS employees as a smoking area.
“I’m going to restore this and open the doors for the first time in years,” Guetta states excitedly. “This was the first studio in Hollywood [orginally Nestor Studios]. There’s a plaque over there that says 1911. I’m going to have projections showing on all the surfaces and a jazz band playing as people come in.”
It’s easy to see that the ideas won’t stop flowing just because the show opens officially. I’m beginning to believe that Guetta might just pull off his spectacle as the Seventh Letter’s REVOK arrives to scout out his space in the stairwell to paint. And, as Shepard Fairey, paraphrasing Malcolm McLaren, says, if he doesn’t, “a glorious failure is better than an underwhelming success.”
“Life Is Beautiful,” MBW solo show, Columbia Square, 6121 Sunset Blvd., Hlywd., www.artshow2008.com. Opening reception, with Shepard Fairey as DJ, Wed., June 18, 7-11 p.m. Exhibit Thurs.-Sat., June 19-21, 1-9 p.m.; Sun., June 22, 1-5 p.m.