Seeing Things: Austin Art Boards project puts local artists’ work on billboards

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Seeing Things: Austin Art Boards project puts local artists’ work on billboards

Billboards may be a quintessential aesthetic scourge of any roadscape or cityscape — commercial interruptions one has little choice but to encounter whether driving in the countryside or walking in the urban environment.

Perhaps as a public relations effort to mitigate the adverse opinion of billboards, Reagan Outdoor Advertising has for the second year sponsored the Austin Art Boards competition, a juried contest to select 10 works of art to be featured around the greater Austin area.

Last month, a new set of images began to appear, chosen by a three-person panel of respected arts professionals, including director of the University of Texas’ Visual Arts Center Jade Walker and longtime gallerist Wally Workman.

Now, some 20 images are in circulation, popping up in various locations as empty billboards become available.

If the board space is then sold, the art — which is reproduced by high resolution printer on vinyl — is then taken down and moved to another location. An artwork may be on a particular billboard for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and it will stay in rotation as long as the vinyl holds out over the next two years.

Artists are not paid when their images are selected for Austin Art Boards, though the project’s corporate sponsors (Jerry’s Artrama and Holland Photos are also funders along with Reagan) cover the production costs.

Last year 110 artists applied. This year, a representative for Reagan said, there were 220 who each submitted just a single image.

The project’s website — www.austinartboards.org — lists all the winners from this year and 2011 but doesn’t track the rapidly changing locations of the art boards.

You just have to be on the lookout for something that doesn’t look quite like an ordinary billboard.

The commercial use of art has always been a topic both prickly and vague — one that more than a half-century after the emergence of Andy Warhol and other Pop artists is only more prickly and vague.

As a member of Ink Tank, the funky artists collective that’s lately gathered critical and popular buzz for its sprawling site-specific installations, Emily Cayton nevertheless liked the notion of having a billboard of one’s own.

And the elongated billboard format seemed a perfect fit for her drawings, which tend to be deliberately disorienting panoramas of one sort or the other.

“To be honest, I do think it’s kind of fun and funny to see my work on a billboard,” she says. “Yes, billboards bombard you visually. You can’t avoid them. But I’ve always thought it would be great if art could bombard you in the same way.”

Vividly colored and set against a black background, Cayton’s image of a desert canyon is as much a surreal re-imagining of a topographical feature as it is a study in graphic form. And the image started its billboard rotation outside of town, on a road leading to popular swimming hole Krause Springs.

“I like that my image (of nature) was right at the turn-off to the springs,” says Cayton. “But I also like the idea that it might be in the middle of the city, too.”

Robert Boland also seems the least likely kind of artist who might consider entering a competition for billboard space. A creator of poetic conceptual video art, Boland — like Cayton — approached the project with a bit of cheerful curiosity.

“I like the entrepreneurship of the project,” he says. “You’re placing (your art) in a place that’s all about commercialization and revenue. I like that that brings up a conversation about the space in between commercial art and fine art.”

Ordinarily Boland’s quiet, short videos are seen in the hushed, white-walled environs of galleries and museums. For the billboard project, he selected just one frame from one video of his growing oeuvre that has been on exhibit in this country and abroad.

“My medium is so controlled, and I never envisioned it ever being in a landscape or a cityscape. But I liked the non-control and spontaneity of (this project),” Boland says. “People will just come upon my work by happenstance. I like the way that fine art can just be put in front anybody driving by.”

Independent of one another, both Cayton and Boland remark on something else since seeing the result of their creativity writ large on a billboard: a strange new level of recognition.

“Nothing I’ve done so far as an artist has gotten as much attention from my (extended) family as when I posted a picture of my art on a billboard on Facebook,” says Cayton with a laugh. “It was like I’d finally done something they thought was actually important.”

“I drove my parents by (my billboard) when I took them to the airport recently,” Boland says. “They were really proud of me.”

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