Maybe you've noticed that Los Angeles is a flurry of street art activity lately, with Banksy up for an Oscar and all. Another stealth creative foreigner arrived last week. JR, the 27-year-old Parisian artist-slash-activist, has brought his colossal, office park-sized Xeroxes to a neighborhood near you.
With his identity cloaked by a pseudonym taken from the classic American TV show Dallas, JR, wearing his omnipresent fedora and sunglasses, is not easily recognized. His work, however, is immediately distinguishable in the places where he chooses to post, mostly international slums and ghettos.
JR's Los Angeles visit marks the third installment of his expansive project The Wrinkles of the City. The first two were in Cartagena, Spain, and Shanghai in 2010.
JR chooses his subjects and locations carefully, shooting 28mm black-and-white portraits of the locals and then mounting his city-sized, albeit illegal, exhibits on the buildings his subjects inhabit.
The Los Angeles edition of The Wrinkles of the City features JR's craft on 20 walls, slowly revealed over 10 days, beginning Feb. 17. (The Weekly's culture blog, Style Council, is posting each day's new walls, complete with a Google map of the sites, under an exclusive arrangement with the artist.)
The series consists of raw photographs of residents selected through mutual friends, a casting call and man-on-the-street interviews. The portraits are supersized on a blotter and wallpapered onto buildings across the city. So far, JR's work has popped up in Venice, on Melrose Avenue and downtown. The innovative result is part Walker Evans, part Christo.
This is the largest project JR has undertaken in the United States. “This was the first time I was able to interact so much with a city, the people, and the amount of photographs everywhere merging with the landscape,” he explains. “I choose these places because of how the city evolves against its history. China, in Shanghai especially, is definitely a place where they are erasing all kinds of architectural history. The only witnesses to this history are the elderly people. That's why I chose Cartagena and Shanghai, but that's not why I chose L.A. for The Wrinkles of the City.” (He laughs.)
In the first two cities, the word “wrinkles” referred to features of the buildings upon which his images were pasted. He sought out interesting structures; the images pasted on them were almost secondary.
In L.A., the people are paramount. “This is a city where everything is about image,” JR says. “Where people have Botox and fight against aging, I can bring big wrinkles and hang them on the buildings of the city — in contrast to the big advertisements. Los Angeles' definition of beauty is being transformed by these people this week.”
Sometimes the black, white and gray work blends a little too well with the urban landscape, as the art can be difficult to comprehend if you're standing directly in front of it. An example is the amazing three-quarter-view portrait of Louis Walden, a former Warhol Factory regular, that appeared Saturday on the facade of Angel City Brewing downtown, at Alameda Street and Traction Avenue. As with anything of a certain scale or texture, distance is key to absorbing JR's work. The best view is often from across the street or, better yet if you can score it, a rooftop.
However logistically and financially daunting his artistic exploits are, JR doesn't believe in corporate sponsorship of his projects and funds the endeavors himself, with proceeds from limited-edition book sales, the occasional print release and sales of alternative artwork through his gallerist, London superstar Steve Lazarides.
It might be easier for JR to get his point across now, though, as he was recently, and unexpectedly, given the 2011 TED prize, an honor that comes with $100,000. TED, a California conference of leaders in technology, entertainment and design, grants a “wish” every year to people who lead humanitarian efforts. Previously, the conference has rewarded Bill Clinton, religious scholar Karen Armstrong and author Dave Eggers.
The recognition is unprecedented for a street artist, bestowed perhaps in part for JR's altruistic Women Are Heroes project, which he mounted in Africa and Brazil in 2008. JR will disclose how he plans to use his wish money on Wednesday as part of TED2011, unfolding Feb. 28-March 4 in Long Beach.
“It's great, and people know that I'm going to announce my wish, that which is going to play a part in my next undertaking,” he says. “But for now, I'm concentrating on these walls and finishing this project. I've wanted to do something in L.A. for a long time.”
A concept like Wrinkles of the City is an obvious, ironic choice for a city like L.A. However, much like Los Angeles itself, the beauty of JR's photo graffiti is in its impermanence. Once it goes up, it is at the mercy of the elements — be it the weather or the authorities.