Mickalene Thomas is an artist who examines what it means to be a black woman. So what does her work suggest when juxtaposed with an ad for a strip club? How about when it’s displayed just off West Florissant Avenue, a few miles down the road from Ferguson?
Thomas’ “A Moment's Pleasure” is scheduled for installation Thursday, weather permitting, on an east-facing billboard near exit 245 B at West Florissant Avenue. It’s part of the “I-70 Sign Show,” a project that will rotate the work of several artists on billboards along the interstate.
It's not just a public art display. Nor is it an effort to spruce up a highway littered with signs luring drivers to "throwed rolls" and RV campgrounds. The project's about joining the visual roadside shouting match about religion, abortion, products and politics, according to artist Anne Thompson, curator of the “Sign Show."
“The artists were selected to engage in the often contentious arguments that go on between billboards in this state,” Thompson said.
Conversing with Ferguson
“A Moment's Pleasure” features two women wearing sleeveless, patterned dresses. Their faces are relaxed, and they're seated comfortably with legs confidently open, not crossed, against a patchwork of what looks like fabric swatches. For the past two months, it towered above I-70 in the town of Hatton, Mo., 111 miles west of St. Louis, randomly featured near another billboard advertising a strip club.
“Mickalene’s work shows two very proud and dignified women who are not performing, and are not objectified,” Thompson said. “It provides a kind of counterpoint to an idealized, sexualized figure dancing around a pole.”
Taking “A Moment’s Pleasure” to north St. Louis, a few miles south of Ferguson, will surely alter its meaning. But Thompson can’t predict in what way.
“I have no idea how people will respond,” Thompson said. “But because it deals with African-American figures, moving it near Ferguson brings race into the conversation in a way it wasn’t, before.”
Each piece of billboard art is displayed in Hatton for two months before changing locations. Thomas’ “A Moment's Pleasure” is the first to venture into the St. Louis area. It just happened to be in line to move when the exit 245 B billboard became available.
Had another artwork been in the cue for proximity to Ferguson, the resulting conversation would take a different turn. Case in point: artist Mel Bochner’s billboard piece featuring the words “blah, blah, blah.”
“It’s white writing on a black background, and people could interpret that to be a conversational breakdown between blacks and whites,” Thompson said. “Any billboard in the show would enter into that conversation at that location because of current events.”
‘Show-Me’ Shows Up Big In Billboard Count
With funding provided by the University of Missouri, Thompson bought up a bundle of billboard space from DDI Media. This past April, she installed the first of six vinyl renderings. Thompson said she never knows when or if adjacent billboards will be replaced. So like random guests entering and leaving a cocktail-party conversation, the various ads speak to one another in an ever-changing discussion.
But Thomas, the creator of “A Moment’s Pleasure,” isn’t interested in talking about the location of her work. She doesn’t want to make any statement about its proximity to Ferguson or any other billboards, wanting the work to speak for itself.
"It was an opportunity for me to present positive images of African-American women on billboards -- a medium with such great magnitude and structure lending itself to the viewer to look up, which puts forth the power of the image and its subjectivity," Thomas wrote in an email.
In the digital age, billboards have taken on a nostalgic, old-school aura, increasing their appeal for artistic endeavors, according to curator Thompson. She called Missouri a "billboard capital of the U.S.” because the state has a glut of outdoor advertising spaces.
That’s because, back in the 1950s, Missouri declined federal dollars given to states who agreed to regulate billboard construction. So the signs continued to pop up at a robust pace through the 1990s, even amid efforts to cap their numbers. The fight escalated in the late '90s; and early 2000s and it continues today.
Other billboards in the I-70 project include Kim Beck’s wispy rendering of the word “exit,” the result of a skywriting effort. Another by Kay Rosen features the word “blurred,” with its letters fading from blue to red, representing the blue-red divide of our state’s political leanings.
The “Sign Show” is a year-long effort, which will wrap up in March. There’s no attempt to collect responses to the project. Thompson said what’s important is that the work generate questions about images that depart from the usual billboard rhetoric.
“[They may wonder] ‘What kind of image is this? It doesn’t look like the usual kind of message,’” Thompson said. “Ideally, it encourages people to see the rest of the interstate and landscape and the messages with a different kind of curiosity.”
Here’s a speeded-up look at the first installation of Mickalene Thomas’ “A Moment's Pleasure Billboard” in Hatton, Mo.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL