For the past century, the car has shaped life in Los Angeles. From ebullient roadside Googie architecture to lowrider culture in Chicano communities to the luminous prose of Joan Didion, the automobile has framed the aesthetics and our shared experience of the city. So it seems fitting that at a time when a global pandemic has made it all but impossible to visit museums and galleries, an outdoor public art exhibition invites us to engage from the safety of our cars.
Founded by artist and activist Warren Neidich, Drive-by-Art (Public Art in This Moment of Social Distancing) brings together nearly 130 artists across the city to create art for this era. Neidich, inspired by the emergence of drive-by birthday parties, graduation celebrations, and baby showers, began to apply the rubric of the drive-by experience to art engagement. The first iteration of the idea took place in the Hamptons in New York while Neidich and his girlfriend were living with his brother and family in nearby Wainscott. “I was feeling depressed and isolated,” explains Neidich. “The art community was silenced by the pandemic and I thought, ‘How can I help reinvigorate the community?’”
The Los Angeles exhibition expands the original event to two consecutive weekends, one focused on the Eastside (May 23-25), the other centered on the Westside (May 30-31), with Western Avenue as the dividing line. The works are typically presented at artists’ own homes and studios, on their lawns, projected on the sides of their houses, even exhibited in their mailboxes. Windows may become stages for shadow-puppet performances, while musicians and poets may give live performances from the edge of their properties. Viewers can provide their own soundtracks from the safety of their cars.
On Long Island, Neidich says the works were primarily on one single road, Route 27, but the sprawl of Los Angeles presented a new opportunity. “Here it’s networked, there are a variety of different environments,” says Neidich, who points to the disparate vibes of neighborhoods from Glassell Park, Pasadena, Tujunga, Koreatown, and Silver Lake as examples for the Eastside exhibit, and Inglewood, Beverly Hills, Marina del Rey, Baldwin Hills, and Westwood as part of the Westside segment.
Working with curators Renee Petropoulos, Los Angeles contributor Michael Slenske, and Anuradha Vikram, the exhibit crosses geographic divides and features established artists like Lita Albuquerque and Whitney Biennial favorite Todd Gray, as well as emerging artists such as John Knuth, Bettina Hubby, and Marisa Mandler.
For the artists, it’s a chance to show work IRL even as most exhibition opportunities shrink to the digital realm or disappear altogether. According to the recent Los Angeles Artist Census led by Tatiana Vahan and launched prior to the pandemic, more than half, 51 percent, of artists in L.A. were looking for work. It’s not unreasonable to assume that number has gone up considerably during the lockdown.
For artist Bettina Hubby, whose work tends to depend on community engagement and collaboration, this project represents a return to the roots of her practice. “I imagine it will be a refreshing shift of focus away from our current predicament as people seek out evidence of creative acts—a treasure hunt from the comfort of one’s car,” says Hubby.
Many of the artists used the pandemic as a source of inspiration, and opportunity for critique and reflection. Robert Gunderman used the vernacular of real estate signage to create a two-sided painting. On one side is the date of the first known coronavirus death in the U.S. and on the other is the date the painting was made, May 18, 2020 with the number of deaths in the US on that date, 92,258. “[The painting] is deceptive,” says curator Slenske. “It looks like a phone number or real estate listing or a weird viral marketing campaign, but it provides a bookend on the pandemic.”
While the art is meant to be seen from the confines of a car, it’s not meant to be sped past. “American car culture has roots in slow culture,” muses Slenske, who points to the practice of cruising and parking—both exercises in slowness. In contrast, prior to the pandemic, much of car culture was reduced to a utilitarian operation of staring at apps to tell us the fastest way to get to our destination, or calling an uber to do that for us. He adds: “This is about enjoying the ride. You’re forced to slow down.”
All artists, their addresses, and maps of neighborhoods where their works can be viewed are available on the exhibit’s website.