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Drive-By Sightings: Fine Art Ads on NYC Taxis

New York taxis are known for lots of things, most of them bad.  Thanks to a new advertising campaign, 500 Big Apple taxis will be known for something great—great art.  Works by artists Chuck Close and Kehinde Wiley will grace the tops of 500 cabs for the rest of the month of January as part of an advertising campaign hoping to bring art to people in the streets.  Their works will take up more than $100,000 worth of advertising space as part of a gift to the city. The next question will be whether pedestrians and fellow motorists will take note of these drive-by sightings or if the ads will blend into the great blur of life in the big city.

“The idea is really to bring art out to the public,” Art Production Fund co-founder Doreen Remen explained in Times Square at the opening of the project. “We feel that it’s invaluable to society, and that it’s about pure communication, that it opens your mind and elevates your consciousness to something beyond the tangible.” The Art Production Fund collaborated with Show Media, which donated the funds for the advertising space as a holiday present to their home city from co-founder and president John Amato.  Show Media regularly uses advertising on taxis in their innovative marketing campaigns, so this show seems an altruistic extension of their standard operating procedure.

Close’s involvement in the project seems a natural given his stature in American art today, but still a little odd considering his publically expressed dislike of public art, which must make for some interesting reunions with fellow Yale classmate Richard Serra, whose titanic metal artworks fill many a public space. For the past few years, however, Close seems to have embraced his place at the head of the table of any conversation of American art.  Christopher Finch’s 2010 biography of Close marked another stage of increasing openness from perhaps the most thoughtful, articulate, and inspirational (thanks to his triumph over physical challenges) American artist of the last 30 years.  On the 250 taxis to show Close’s works, most will show only cropped sections of the full-face paintings of fellow artists Lucas Samaras (shown above) and Lorna Simpson.  These tantalizing glimpses will either confuse viewers or, I hope, whet their appetite to seek out more.

Although Kehinde Wiley commands an important place in contemporary art, he’s relatively unknown in mainstream culture, at least in comparison to Close.  Wiley acts as a perfect counterpoint to Close in showing the full subject of his paintings, rather than just a fragment.  The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia and Femme Piquee Par Un Serpent, two of Wiley’s signature hip hop characters rendered in Old Master style with religious overtones from 2008, will appear on his share of 250 taxis.  If Close’s close-cropped facial features confuse the uninitiated, Wiley’s will make up for it through sheer amusement by familiarity.  Sure, Wiley aims at elevating hip hop culture by reimagining it through Christian iconography, but on these cabs the quick impression will be of seeing hip hop done in fine style in a new context.  If Kanye West can sing about his Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Wiley can paint about his beautiful dark soulful fantasy.

As Remen expressed so beautifully, the point of this project is “elevate… consciousness to something beyond the tangible” through something as tangibly everyday as advertising on taxicabs, especially in the yellow-riddled traffic of New York City.  Attempts have been made to bring poetry to the masses through advertising on public transportation to middling success.  Perhaps striking images can penetrate the public consciousness quicker and more effectively than words.  If the “Chuck and Kehinde Show” makes it on Broadway, then there may still be hope for fine art to find a place in mainstream America as a reflection of who we really are.


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