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Tulsa Artist Fellows dismantle the culture of consumption

Edgar Fabián Frías’ Nuestrxs Antepasadxs Nos Hablan Directamente (Our Ancestors Speak Directly With Us)


In his 1963 book, Confessions of an Advertising Man, David Oglivy writes: “Man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard.” The founder of the famed advertising agency Oglivy & Mather goes on to fantasize about forming a secret society of masked vigilantes “who will travel around the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon.”

There’s something of this spirit in the new local public art project, Add Space, which can currently be seen on billboards throughout downtown Tulsa. Spearheaded by Tulsa Artist Fellow Richard Zimmerman, the idea is to bring works of art to public spaces traditionally used for advertising. The first installment of the series, splashed on outdoor ad canvases across the city through November, features works by fellow TAF artists Edgar Fabián Frías and Nathan Young along with L.A.-based visual artist Johnna Arnold.

The concept of hijacking ad space for public art isn’t new, with a tradition stretching back to the post-cultural revolution turn of the 1970s and into our current late-capitalist moment. Zimmerman points to the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose Untitled (1991) billboard stopped New Yorkers in their tracks with a monochrome photo of an empty bed, made after the artist’s long-term partner Ross Laycock died from AIDS. More recently, the I-70 Sign Show took over 250 miles of interstate between St. Louis and Kansas City, flipping ads for forced-birth crusaders and “Missouri’s loosest slots” into provocative roadside art installations.

Driving around Tulsa, nestled among gentle rolling green hills choked with billboards pushing bail bonds, medical cannabis and personal injury attorneys, Zimmerman saw opportunity for a similar disruption. “I thought, ‘What would it mean to have art in these spaces?’ That was the kind of curious thing that led to looking at the mechanics of how to do it.”

Through a TAF project grant, Zimmerman assembled a team of artists to take over space sold by Lamar Outdoor Advertising. The result is three distinct but cohesive works: Frías’ Nuestrxs Antepasadxs Nos Hablan Directamente (Our Ancestors Speak Directly With Us) located at 1348 E. 6th St.; Nathan Young’s NDN Medicine at 205 W. 11th St.; and Johnna Arnold’s From Inside This Earth / sunshine is in everything we do at 591 W. 3rd St.

Frías’ Antepasadxs is perhaps the most visually distinct of the trio, trading the text-driven format of traditional billboard advertising for a lush, psychedelic collage of images and cultural information—deities, sacred objects, pattern work—framing a saturated self-portrait of the artist. It is, as the title suggests, a kind of communication between Frías and their ancestors.

“It’s a way of bringing that natural element into this public space,” Frías says. They have been working recently with elements like flower essences, things that can be bottled and taken off-site to extend arts experiences outside of gallery spaces. “I’ve been trying to find ways to kind of bring the nature more into my life. … Nature is very healing. We are nature, right?”

During the installation process, Zimmerman found another layer in the relationship between the environments bound together by this project. The canvasses of the billboards themselves, far from blank, revealed a 27-by-40-inch history of past advertisements for house flippers, gun shows, Weed Maps and more—not unlike the annual growth rings of a tree.

This relationship between the natural and built environments has made billboard art an irresistible format for artists throughout the decades, and now Tulsans can appreciate this grand tradition of culture jamming for themselves. Whereas large-scale outdoor advertisements are designed to influence spending patterns and behaviors, this collection of works has a different goal in mind entirely.

“A lot of advertising is used to direct people, to give a very contained message that’s very simple or complete,” Frías says. “These billboards bring up a lot more questions than answers. So that creates a pause. … That’s a really powerful thing art can do. It can traverse through some of these very calcified structures that have been formed over the years. Art has a powerful way of being able to pierce through that.” 

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