“Please watch out for trees, we don’t want any decapitations or pinecone incidents,” says Kathy Garcia, balancing a microphone in one hand and a mimosa in the other. We are perched on the upper level of a red double-decker bus in front of LACMA, about to embark on a five-hour tour of “Women in the City,” a public art exhibition that takes the works of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman to the streets of Los Angeles. Garcia brushes a nuisance of licorice-black bangs out of her eyes and hands the mike off to Emi Fontana, the show’s curator and the tour MC; in her charming Italian accent, Fontana notes the billboard installations we pass.
It is a glorious Saturday morning, and as we cruise up to Hollywood Boulevard, the 30 bus riders bask in the crisp air, sipping from plastic champagne flutes. Onboard is a fleet of powerful women: lawyers, teachers, bloggers, various friends and supporters of Fontana’s art organization, West of Rome, including Francesca Valente, director of the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles, and Joanne Heyler, director of the Broad Art Foundation. (Other donors include the François Pinault Foundation and the Pasadena Arts Council.)
Fontana is a petite Italian woman with paprika-colored hair, a contagious laugh and a particular affection for L.A. “Women in the City” began as her dream two years ago and has finally materialized as West of Rome’s first nonprofit project. The organization strives to bring art out of museums and galleries and into public spaces.
“There is hardly any place to see public art in Los Angeles,” Fontana says. “Yet Los Angeles offers the perfect landscape for it.”
“Women in the City” acts as a sort of social chameleon, adhering to the general anatomy of the city while providing an alternate skin, commenting on culture in a language L.A. can understand: advertisement.
“These pieces should create displacement in viewers,” Fontana says, as she shuffles us down the Sunset Strip to see a huge, yellowish portrait of Sherman posing with one hand lost in a head of glossy curls. “We are centered on icons. The point is to create confusion.”
Sherman’s self-portraits camouflage naturally in Hollywood’s forest of billboards, Holzer’s “Truisms”materialize and vanish as mischievously as a Cheshire-cat grin from an LCD board over the Gap at Hollywood and Highland, Kruger’s “Plenty” flashes between band announcements and Pepsi commercials on video billboards down Sunset, while Lawler’s birdcalls echo the names of famous male artists in a forest of bamboo at Huntington Gardens.
Whether the majority of passersby even notice the installations is questionable, but the project has transitioned smoothly into the cityscape. The only real complaint they’ve faced, Fontana admits, was the marquee atop the Roosevelt Hotel, which boasts a new Holzer statement each week. It seems that “Romantic love was invented to manipulate women” was just a little too disturbing for some, and Fontana was asked to replace it before the week was up.
In five hours we experience intense sun, brisk wind and a chapter of rain, and by tour’s end, back at LACMA in the late afternoon, it feels as if we have been cycled through a sampling of the elements and spit back out again. Between the endless champagne and the excitement of being chauffeured down Sunset Boulevard, everyone seems happy, although we do lose a few after the first stop, when Fontana ushers us off the bus for a three-block walk down Hollywood Boulevard to see Holzer’s three-minute feature at the mall.
(“I didn’t know this involved walking,” whines a skinny middle-aged woman in patent-leather platforms.)
But for most, the chance to spend an afternoon actually looking at the spectacle of the city, and to laugh at the blatant jabs at consumerism, which somehow manage to morph perfectly into the commercial fabric of the streets, provide a cathartic exercise in self-reflection.
On Sunset, Kruger’s words precede a series of videos of people talking on cell phones: “You’re a very important person. Hang up and drive.”
For information on continuing and upcoming installations: www.womeninthecity.org.