When Billboards Are Ripped and Abstracted

Richard Sargent likes to take pictures of them. “Photographing torn posters is a cliché in which I continue to indulge,” he writes. In fact, his photos of “decaying urban billboards” — all of them shot in northern California’s East Bay cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, and Richmond — transform that cliché into brilliant works of found art. Seattle-based Workwomans Press has just published a dozen of the photos in Richard Sargent’s EAST BAY BILLBOARDS CALENDAR 2012. I think they are holy-shit gorgeous.

Albany at San Pablo & Solana (Photograph © 2011 by Richard Sargent)

One could insist that Sargent is late to the game. But it’s not as if he has chosen to stand outside art history. He himself notes in a statement on the back of the calendar, “Artistic interest in decay is not new.” He also points out that “the images, messages, and juxtapositions are always changing,” and they offer “new meanings” to the viewer. Sargent, who is 79 and lives in Berkeley, says he was a former Navy photographer with an MFA in painting from the University of Southern California when he arrived in New York, in the 1950s, “during the prevailing reign of Abstract Expressionism.” His Pop-saturated décollage billboards evoke that influence.

Richmond on Barrett Ave (Photograph © 2011 by Richard Sargent)

“Fifty years later,” Sargent writes, “I find dripped paint, troweled impasto, and partial words peeling across disparate images in today’s decaying urban billboards which I see as my ‘found paintings.’ They are huge, flapping in the wind, in frames.” He lays claim to them, deservedly, as “my billboards.”



Oakland at Broadway & E 41st (Photograph © 2011 by Richard Sargent)

Some of his billboard photos call to mind the mid-20th century décollages of Mimmo Rotella or Wolf Vostell, others seem to echo the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg. But their scale and profusion speak for themselves, and it’s only their perception through Sargent’s camera that enables them to be seen as art. However accidental or late, he has given them aesthetic purpose.

Oakland on Foothill Blvd (Photograph © 2011 by Richard Sargent)

It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I’m crazy about all of them.


Oakland at 23rd & E 12th (Photograph © 2011 by Richard Sargent)




For a change of pace, how about this one.


Oakland at Market & 63rd (Photograph © 2011 by Richard Sargent)

Incidental intelligence: In case anybody wants to know, all the billboard photos in the calendar were taken since 2000. Here are the dates for the ones reproduced in this blogpost: Albany at San Pablo & Solana (April 13, 2010); Richmond on Barrett Ave (2006); Oakland at Broadway & E 41st (March 7, 2010); Oakland on Foothill Blvd (2006); Oakland at 23rd & E 12th (Dec. 30, 2008); Oakland at Market & 63rd (Nov. 2, 2000).

Sargent has served as Curator at the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Berkeley Art Center, and Dominican University’s San Marco Gallery. His work has been shown at the Triangle Gallery, in San Francisco; the Giorgi Gallery, in Berkeley; North First Artspace, in San Jose; and both the Joyce Gordon Gallery and the Warehouse Gallery, in Oakland.

I’m told that the EAST BAY BILLBOARDS CALENDAR 2012 may be ordered for a flat $10 each within the U.S., including tax and shipping, by sending a check made payable to Workwomans Press, 4048 NE 58th Street, Seattle, WA 98105. Calendars will be mailed out First Class. For orders outside the U.S. the price is $15, including shipping. Alternatively, they can be purchased via Paypal, using the email GailChiarello@comcast.net to place an order.

(Crossposted at HuffPo and at Cultural Weekly)

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  1. George Mattingly says

    These are GREAT. I designed a series of billboards for the University of California’s School of Optometry last year — and watched my work on a billboard above Bing’s Liquors (on San Pablo in Berkeley) disintegrate in the first hard rain. [head said: WE WANT TO LOOK INTO YOUR EYES] Should have called Richard Sargent instead of despairing that I’d missed a chance to snap a shot for my portfolio!

  2. says

    Richard Sargent’s EAST BAY BILLBOARDS CALENDAR 2012 is available at the following Bay Area bookstores:
    Pegasus Solano, 1855 Solano Ave, Berkeley
    Pegasus Shattuck, 2349 Shattuck, Berkeley
    Diesel Bookstore, 5433 College, Oakland
    Books Inc., 1344 Park, Alameda
    Modern Times Bookstore, 2919 24th Ave., San Francisco (in the Mission)

  3. Mike says

    One note on the poor condition of these billboards: The displays shown utilize several paper sheets, which are pasted onto the display, much like a wallpaper application. In the last 2 years, approximately 85% of the outdoor advertising industry has converted to polyethylene “single sheet posters.” These new posters will not rip or tear in inclement weather conditions, resulting in a much more aethetically pleasing medium. Moving forward, the art and designs will be seen as intended, despite weather conditions. Now, the medium needs to continue to improve upon designs, which are far too often reliant on text, and not enough true art.