Interview with Mona Kuhn
Image shown on billboard above: © Mona Kuhn, Billboard location: Highland South of Waring, East Side, Facing North - Los Angeles, CA
KELLY KORZUN: How did you come up with the idea of taking unused billboards and turning them into public art?
MONA KUHN: It was Adam Santelli, TBC's Director, who came up with the idea and set this project into motion. Back in 2011 Adam received a call from an AD agency that was trying to unload remnant billboards to artists. It was during the recession, so these kind of deals were coming up once in a while. But even at a discounted rate, the boards were still too expensive for an artist to rent. However, a thought popped into Adam’s head: how wonderful would it be to exhibit artworks on billboards for a wide audience of people driving by everyday? So Adam tested the idea and rented one billboard to display his own artwork for a month. During that time, he observed curious people interacting with the billboard; pedestrians stopped by to look at the board, a couple of people even took selfies with it. It was really interesting to see the idea come to life. So in 2012 Adam founded The Billboard Creative, a non profit organization with one mission: to use remnant billboards and turn them into public art. What started as a test in 2011, became an exhibition of 15 billboards in 2014. In the Spring of 2015, Adam invited me to step in as an LA-artist and curator. It has since grown so much, this week we have 33 artwork billboards coming up in Los Angeles, with one mission, to stop traffic with art!
Image shown on billboard above: © Jack Pierson, Billboard location: Santa Monica East of Vine, North Side, Facing West - Los Angeles, CA
KK: The list of artists selected this year includes Ed Ruscha, Jack Pierson, Andrew Bush, Shane Guffogg, Kim McCarty, Panos Tsagaris and many others. What characteristics draw your attention to specific artists? Who should be encouraged to submit and exhibit at The Billboard Creative?
MK: A billboard exhibition can be a challenging proposition. We’re competing for attention within a busy urban setting, with an audience mostly inside their cars commuting. My first step was to observe traffic and study audience behavior. There were two distinct situations observed: people would be either driving by swiftly, or completely stuck in a traffic jam. Considering the first scenario, my intention is to grab their attention by surprise with graphically strong artworks, pieces that are easy to read and understand in a relatively short amount of time. That was the case with artworks selected from artists such as Panos Tsagaris, Jack Pierson, Andrew Bush, Ed Ruscha, Carolyn Doucette, among others. But I also saw a need to reach out to an audience who might be stuck in a traffic jam, feeling somewhat impatient and helpless. I thought about artworks that had the power to transport my thoughts momentarily away from that jam and inspire me to mentally escape the traffic. Some of the works selected were the delicate watercolors from Kim McCarty, the handmade knitted sculptures from Thomas Chung and the emotional colors present in Robert Zuchowski's paintings. All works had a touch of sublime to me.
KK: Where are the billboards located and how was this decided?
MK: The locations and intersections for the billboards are pretty great. The billboard exhibition is concentrated in intersections around West Hollywood and Hollywood. I asked them to concentrate most locations by gallery or museum areas. It was not easy to guarantee space, as you can imagine, but it all worked out. Santa Monica and Highland (by Regen Projects), Beverly and La Brea, Sunset and Western, Fairfax in front of LACMA, Melrose by the gates of Paramount Studios. You can see the list online at www.thebillboardcreative.com. The two billboard companies facilitating TBC exhibitions are Clear Channel and Outfront; they're very artist-supportive and helpful!
KK: How does ArtMoi compliment the billboard exhibition?
MK: I thought it was important to provide a mobile map of the show. It’s an app anyone can download that shows the locations of the billboards and offers further info on the artists and their works. Similar to a museum audio guide, but outside of the conventional walls of an institution.
Image shown on billboard above: © Carolyn Doucette, Billboard location: Hollywood West of Bronson, South Side, Facing West - Los Angeles, CA
KK: In one of your interviews, you mentioned using Gauguin’s painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? as the basis for your creative source — timeless and universal questions we all have. With the TBC initiative, what questions do you want to provoke in thousands of people during their daily commute?
MK: My main goal was to stop traffic with art: to bring artwork from gallery and museum walls and into the streets; to interact with a much wider and egalitarian audience in hopes of touching a nerve here and there for a split second; to offer a surprise, a small seed for thought.
KK: What were the greatest challenges faced while curating TBC?
MK: When Adam Santelli from TBC invited me to curate the second Billboard Creative exhibition to be displayed all over intersections in LA proper, I had no idea we would receive a substantial amount of great artworks. I was impressed with the quality of the works submitted. It was also a very interesting process for me, from an artist’s point of view. The artworks selected where based on the criteria mentioned to you earlier, but we still had at least 100 great works that needed to be narrowed down to 33 billboard placements. The final selection was the hardest as all works were equally strong to me. It is interesting to know that I selected them based on the artwork only. I did not have the name of the artists together with the works. It was all based on the artwork standing on its own. The final selection was based on bringing a balance to the final group of 33 artworks. It was not an easy task, but I would do it all over again.
Image shown on billboard above: © Kim McCarty, Billboard location: Melrose and Gower South East, Facing West - Los Angeles, CA
KK: Starting with a single billboard, TBC has grown tremendously over the past years. What feedback have you received?
MK: It will be interesting to see what feedback we receive this year. So far, we’ve received very positive feedback from the artist community. There is open and positive communication going on through social media. It’s fun to observe it taking on a life of its own.
KK: Tell us more about TBC and the nonprofit organization’s objectives overall.
MK: Nobody got paid for their efforts; it’s literally a labor of love. When they contacted me, their main interest was to have an artist curate other artists’ works — from artist, to artist and for artists type of thinking. In exchange for my time and advice, they offered to place one of my pieces on a billboard. So, I’ve a piece from the Acido Dorado series in this as well.
Image shown on billboard above: © Ed Ruscha, Billboard location: Melrose West of Wilton, South Side, Facing East - Los Angeles, CA
KK: What do you foresee in the future for TBC? Have you thought about bringing TBC to other cities?
MK: Last year, TBC placed 15 contemporary artists’ works on billboards across Los Angeles. This year, we were able to guarantee placement for 33 artworks. We’ve been talking about bringing it to a sister city in the US, or possibly Cuba! It’s been an exciting project, great for artists’ exposure and I’m hoping we can expand it further — fingers crossed!
KK: What about LA attracts artists?
MK: It’s probably a combination of incredible light, available space for artist studios, reasonable rental prices and a growing artist community supported by critics, collectors, and institutions. I’m not sure what exactly brings them here, but whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be available in NY any longer. We’ve been noticing a large amount of artists moving here from the east coast.
KK: You were born in São Paulo and currently reside in LA, which is referred to as a "desert city" by many authors. In your latest body of work, Acido Dorado, you explore a close friend and collaborator’s, Jacintha’s, interactions with the American desert. What entices you about deserts?
MK: In my own life and work, I would say I have a tendency for minimalism. What draws me to the desert is the incredible light and the vast landscape. It feels like an empty canvas waiting to be brought to life. It has an existential undercurrent that entices my imagination.
KK: You describe Acido Dorado as "a mix of California hedonism and surreal desert hallucination." In this series, your narrative shifted from nudes expressed in the physical body to abstracted expressions of the body. What triggered this shift?
MK: I think it was a natural tendency and personal wish to push my work forward. It was a privilege for me to create images together with someone I knew for so many years. We are kindred spirits and continue each others’ sentences. Same for creating the work, I would think of someone and before mentioning it, Jacintha would be addressing my thoughts in her body language. It was a real interesting series for me, because most images were shot tangentially to the model, embracing reflections from the surrounding glass panels of the house. The minimal glass house offered a great setting to let go of existing standards and create something new — to find a balance in blending figure, landscape, and variations of abstractions. I’m now finalizing edits for the upcoming book. It will be published by Steidl and released by Fall 2016.
Image shown on billboard above: © Andrew Bush, Billboard location: Fairfax North of 5th, West Side, Facing South - Hollywood, Los Angeles, CA
KK: Your first monograph, Photographs, debuted with Steidl more than a decade ago. How do you feel your work has changed over the years?
MK: Hard to say. I might not have an objective point of view as I’m too close to it. I would probably admit that the basis of my creative source has remained the same — the human being whose beauty (beyond the surface of the skin) and existence remain mysterious to me
KK: What’s next? What projects are you currently working on?
MK: Lately, I’ve been really interested in the intellectual and philosophical aspects of the creative community in the 20s, both in Europe and in Los Angeles. I’ve been studying and photographing at the Schindler House here in West Hollywood. Built by the Austrian architect Schindler, it’s considered an early, mid-century masterpiece. I’m interested not only in the architecture, but most importantly for me, in the social theory of that time. I think we still have much to learn and distill from that avant-garde era in LA.