Big Picture

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about outdoor murals and the Big Box Data Centers out here in Loudoun County. You can read that post here. The data centers have been here for years and no doubt more of them are on the way. While the discussion was enlightening, it had me thinking back to other examples of very large scale art projects.

Raphael’s fresco, “The School of Athens” is huge: painted in 1511, it measures 16′ 5″ x 25′ 3”. Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” painted in 1642, is 11′ 11″ x 14′ 4”. And one of my favorite images, Pablo Picasso’s moving “Guernica” is 11′ 6″ x 25′ 6″. Clearly, overly-large works of art are hardly new to us.

Recently a new outdoor mural was installed in Springfield in conjunction with a refresh of a local neighborhood shopping plaza. Undoubtedly intentional, the cardinal in the graphic brings to mind the name of the plaza, Cardinal Forest.

Bank of America mural in Springfield VA, by Refract Studio.

In 1974, as a senior in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Nevada Reno, I had the opportunity to paint one of several billboards around town that spring. The billboard locations had been donated by Donrey for a month to advertise that year’s Spring Arts Festival at UNR. 

Billboard art, UNR Arts Festival

I had been working part time at a local billboard company. Outdoor Posters, (now Midtown Art and Photo) was a silkscreen printer specializing in the large billboards one can see through out many of the cities and towns across the US..

The Billboard Marketing Industry https://www.bmediagroup.com/news/which-state-has-the-most-billboards/ notes that there are now almost 400,000 billboards in America. Four states have no billboards (Maine, Vermont, Alaska, and Hawaii). The federal government tracks the number of billboards through each state as part of the Highway Beautification Act (HBA) of 1965. 

Florida, Georgia, California, and New Jersey are the top four states with billboards. According to Statista.com, there are approximately 343 thousand displays in the U.S. in 2020 with nearly  9.6 thousand were digital billboards. Considering that digital billboards were introduced in 2005, I would have thought that there would be far more of them by now.

What has happened is the proliferation of digital media in places like cinemas, shopping malls, airports, bus shelters, and of course stadiums. Digital media have virtually popped up everywhere, in all the obvious spaces. But we have also seen a proliferation of large-scale digital images in many unlikely places.

Video screen at Christian Fellowship Church, Ashburn VA

Churches, for instance, have really embraced the large format LED video walls. With their brilliant saturated colors and use of text, the modern video walls in today’s churches seemingly replicate the function of gothic stained glass windows, both as decorative elements and as tools of instruction. In the best cases, their use can enhance the mood and lyrics of a song or a speaker’s message. In the worst case, they can become expensive screen savers and a distraction to the message.

One of my favorite movies begins with a scene that was prescient for it’s time. Ridley Scott’s classic film, “Blade Runner” opens with a view of building-sized video screens. Startling at the time, they are now commonplace in many cities, for instance New York’s Times Square. And home TVs and video screens? Always bigger because, well, we just love the Big Picture.

Blade Runner, 1982


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