With a sweep of a paint sprayer, an artist has managed to take a decrepit motel in my Los Angeles neighbourhood and turn it into a destination — not by fixing it up, but by temporarily erasing it from the street.
Last week, French artist Vincent Lamouroux used a water-soluble whitewash — no, it's not actually paint, but more on that in a second — to blanch a motel, including the dozen or so Mexican fan palms that fringe the property.
"The idea was to cover the entire building, including the trees," Lamouroux told me yesterday while he gave me a tour, dressed head to toe in white. In fact, it is the inclusion of the palm trees, swaying overhead like bobblehead ghosts, which has garnered the piece the most attention.
They are also the most troublesome, from an artistic standpoint. It's a challenge to keep anything in LA a pristine white shade, but apparently trees are especially problematic. The wash, applied by sprayers the week before, had already begun to fade, so yesterday a man was positioned atop a cherry picker, hitting them with another coat before the opening this Sunday.
(A billboard on top of the motel was whitewashed, but the footpaths have been spared, as have the curbs, street signs, and one lonely streetlamp, which I actually think could have used a coat of paint or two.)
As you walk the western edge of the trendy hamlet of Silver Lake on the city's storied Sunset Boulevard, it's the palms you see first, as the monotone piece slowly emerges from the contextual beige of strip mall stucco. Actually, first you'll see dozens of people standing precariously in the middle of four lanes of traffic to Instagram the piece, which is about as social-media ready as a public art piece could possibly be.
Some of the hundreds of photos tagged #ProjectionLA
Although I got to briefly step inside, the property will remain closed to the public — even the razor wire atop the chain link fence was painted white. There's no signage (although you might catch wind of a hashtag that helps explain the piece), just a security guard. He might serve as a de facto docent, but he also needs to be there due to the property's history.
Projection, as the work is named, could have been staged at any of the city's derelict motels, really. But Lamouroux — who lived in the neighbourhood years ago — had his eye on this one in particular. The Googie-style sign on top reads Sunset Pacific but everyone here calls it the Bates Motel, partly because it's on the corner of Bates Street, but mostly because this moniker appropriately conveys its freaky Psycho vibes.
Vacant for over a decade, the motel's ability to attract drug activity and gun violence has turned this stretch of Sunset into a kind of no-man's land. During his days as a city councilman, LA's mayor Eric Garcetti tried unsuccessfully to rehab it, sell it, then demolish it, calling it "one of the most troublesome properties in the city."
My own photos of the motel and its interior after one of many, many cleanups in 2010
While this particular block was slow to gentrify, the areas around it have dramatically transformed, some would say too much for their liking. Painting this one building white, temporarily, is meant to acknowledge the changing city but also to shake up our view of all similar spaces, says Lamouroux. "The idea is to disrupt the way we perceive things by giving some special attention to this one place."
But it's also managed to draw plenty of curious speculation about this particular motel's past — and future. Lamouroux was not able to find anything about the building's architect, for example, but since the project has been up he has been approached by many people wanting to learn more about the property, or sharing their stories like a woman who said she honeymooned here, when there was even a sparkling pool.
And about the palm trees. They do actually have an advocate: Dave Cooper, an arborist who counts over 200 Southern California cities as clients. He was supervising the application of a product called Premium Greenhouse Shading which is often sprayed on citrus trees and other plants to protect them from excessive heat or certain insects.
These natural "shading compounds" are made with lime — not the fruit, but calcium hydroxide, the same thing found in many foods — and they're completely safe, says Cooper. The wash won't hurt the palms, he told me, nor will it hurt any animals who come in contact with it. "No danger, none."
Growers remove the shading compound with a little water and a brush, but LA's wind and rain will quickly restore the palms to their normal colouring. Even if it doesn't rain — and if we're being honest with ourselves here, it might not until October — the trees generate new fronds so quickly they will be green again soon, said Cooper. "These trees grow about two feet a year."
I thought about this as I walked home, brushing a fine mist of lime from my iPhone screen. Even though this installation "closes" May 10, the various surfaces will return to their natural patinas at various rates, peeling back their white shells like a reptile shedding skin. The building itself won't be returned to its original state for quite some time. And even then, its "original state" isn't something any of us who live here want to be restored.
The motel itself is in limbo, the property purchased by a developer, but with no planned demolition date. And then, in a fate that many residents might consider to be worse than a vacant motel, it's to be replaced by a bland mid-rise housing development.
The obvious Hollywood ending to Lamouroux's project is that through his art the building gets saved, maybe bought by the Ace, who restore the pool but leave the cool Sunset Pacific sign. But watching as a couple arrive on bikes wearing matching silver outfits and begin to arrange themselves into a photo shoot on a block where no one stopped before, it made me wonder if the whitewashed spectacle shouldn't stay just the way it is.
Vincent Lamouroux, Projection, 2015. Photos by Guillaume Onimus, except where noted. Courtesy of Please Do Not Enter and Vincent Lamouroux.