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by Ray Zone

(Circle Elephant Art, Silverlake) One of the valuable functions a visual artist can serve in the present day is to render into consciousness what resides subliminally in advertising. Historically, advertising has played upon the primal dictates of human experience (birth, death, sex) to sell us mostly superfluous products. For over a century the purpose of advertising has been to create markets, to convince us to buy things independent of need. And it has very cleverly, sometimes insidiously, exploited our inescapable and fundamental humanity to do so.

When a visual artist like Keith Schoenheit strips product veneer and brand identity away from advertising iconography to reveal its core message, the effect can be that of waking from a dream. A sleeping “consumer” can awaken from the hypnagogic state that the array of advertising images induces and become conscious on a number of levels. Primarily, the conscious mind becomes aware of the theatrical artifice of the visual presentation and one’s perceptual relationship to it. A secondary effect is that the extraneous nature of what is being sold becomes obvious, almost laughable.

The Billboard series consists of black and white photo images of L.A. neighborhoods that include large displays of advertising signage. Schoenheit digitally manipulates each image to eliminate product recognition. This is funny and powerful, when you think about it, because it is an act of reverse advertising.

"Anxiety," black and white
photograph, 2000.

"Happy Couple," black and
white photograph, 2000.

"Goddess of the Triangle," black
and white photograph, 2000.

"Cowboy (Oater King of
Tinsel Town)," black and white
photograph, 2000.

"Angelyne," black and white
photograph, 2000.
This act deliberately undoes the work that thousands of dollars were spent to achieve. Schoenheit then allows the core image of the ad to stand by itself, stripped of logo and text. The artist also then darkens the foreground and sky behind the billboard to further isolate the billboard image. The image is heightened but it is still seen in its environmental context.

On display in the gallery are black and white prints, most of them 8 x 10 in size. The images are appealing, both documentary and fantastic at once. Big Eyes works well as a signature for the entire show. A freeway with cars is seen in the foreground against a darkened cityscape. Rising like an exotic totem out of the urban jumble is a luminous rectangle through which a pair of beautiful eyes regard the viewer. The work invokes the viewer’s own gaze, an idea of beauty and the power of the image to cast a spell or to com- municate in an immediate manner.

Goddess of the Triangle depicts a single female with long black hair and bare shoulders looking down through a square “screen” onto the city street. She, like the goddess in Big Eyes, regards the viewer with the composure of an even gaze. What consideration of advertising signage would be complete without an image of Angelyne horizontally reclining in outsized fashion on a billboard overlooking a darkened street? Angelyne is itself reflexive, a self-caricaturing icon of the unreal, plastic and extreme, with which the ordinary must necessarily contend.

Mother and Child depicts an infant held in a mother’s nurturing arms. Both are perched high above a city street, unaware of the hurly burly of the traffic below them. Anxiety humorously shows us widened eyes and upraised hands, as their bearer looks down on our world with fright. This image reminds us that advertisers are not above exploiting our fears to sell us their products.

There is a Happy Couple that is incongruously out of place in a desert with cacti, scraggly shrubs and a rickety chain link fence. What are they so happy about? Don’t they see how desolate their environment is? Cowboy (Oater King of Tinseltown) looks like an outtake from a science fiction movie in the form of a fifty-foot high cowboy who strolls through the hills around Sunset Blvd.

Schoenheit’s reverse engineering of advertising on billboards is amusing--subtle in places, heavy-handed where it should be. The images are playful alarm clocks for our visual consciousness.