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Chasing 'The Yellow Line:' Simon Rouby's Highway Art

Yellow Lines | Photo Courtesy of Simon Rouby.

Late at night on desert drives or city treks, it's just you, the darkness and the road; your car chomping up those lane lines, like Pac-Man devouring digital morsels in that 8-bit maze. But while on the road, have you considered those ever-present lane markers as art? French filmmaker Simon Rouby does. While living in Los Angeles, he bridged the gap between CalArts and CalTrans, as he tagged along with those hulking freeway striping machines, as they gave order to Southern California highways and roads. He placed canvases underneath these snail-paced trucks, creating art from the yellow paint meant for the road. His show "YELLOW LINE" opens at Caltrans District 7 Headquarters this week, featuring the works made in collaboration with these mechanized painters.

Artbound caught up with Rouby and discussed California car culture, walking in Los Angeles, and making friends with the highway stripers.

What first interested you in the roads of Los Angeles?

I arrived in Los Angeles not knowing much about it, and I didn't expect to arrive in such a spread out place. Plus I was on the campus of California Institute of the Arts and had no car. So I had to walk around, and cross the [I-5] on a bridge everyday. That's when I started to be fascinated by the yellow line painted on the concrete down there. Its color, its brightness, fascinated me. The sound of the cars and trucks, the contrast with the blue sky was visually very striking. It was definitely a visual emotion that first attracted me. I decided to work on this subject, and that's how I met the people who paint them: the Caltrans "Striping Crew."

How long did you work with Caltrans? Describe a typical day when you were working with the Caltrans. What exactly were you doing?

I tried to come back to Los Angeles every year for say a month since 2007, and managed to spend a couple days with the Striping Crew every time. They allowed me to follow them on their daily routine, which is endlessly painting miles and miles of lines all over the L.A county. They leave very early in the morning and finish in the afternoon. Then, they were kind enough to take some of their free time to stay on the yard and work with me.

What were the responses of the Caltrans workers when you showed them your art, or tried to explain what your project was?

I like to think they were pleased to be a center of attention, because they sometimes suffer from people who get angry if they slow down traffic, or just don't notice what they do because it is such a ubiquitous part of the environment for people here. I was basically telling them that what they do is great.

What elements of abstract expressionism do you see in the road striping?

When I witnessed them emptying their totes on protection sheet for the first time, I was really amazed. The saturation of the pigment used, the rawness of the machines. I immediately thought about Pollock, Rothko, Barnett Newman. It felt like these abstract expressionist painters had somehow captured something very figurative! Something present in the American visual environment, since the country is based a lot on the car culture.

Yellow Lines | Photo Courtesy of Simon Rouby.
Yellow Lines | Photo Courtesy of Simon Rouby.

What do you think road striping in L.A. means symbolically?

Think about it for a moment and imagine yourself in a public setting, say a metro platform, waiting for the next train. Invariably, the omnipresent caution line is helping you to 'be safe' -- It's the same on the streets, or at the airport while you wait for your passport to be stamped.... Yellow is a color connected to the sun, the light. Van Gogh used it as his "highest note." But somehow here it became the color of danger, safety, boundary. And it's very present here! Everywhere you see "CAUTION", "STAND BEHIND." These lines divide the public space and create forbidden space, negative space in the city that becomes no man's land. What is the name of that space on the middle of the highway, that foot wide and miles long rectangle in between two yellow lines?

We react to these visual boundaries very instinctively, very physically, as if there was a real wall. Most people don't normally notice these design details beyond their utilitarian purposes. I like to remove myself and others from looking at these lines as visual functions. If you look at them from the perspective of a designer or artist they are quite interesting. Vast linear coloring that traces and guides humans everywhere we go. We have learned to subconsciously follow this complex system of lines to tell us how to get to where we need to go. The striping crew is really interesting because they understand this. They are not considered artists but they have mastered this art. This project brings together perspectives that don't normally intersect. The intersection however is interesting to me. When people encounter this art project they leave and start noticing things for the first time that they have been seeing and using for their whole lives.

Yellow Lines | Photo Courtesy of Simon Rouby.
Yellow Lines | Photo Courtesy of Simon Rouby.

How are the roads different here than your home in France?

Well the scale is different. It just doesn't give me the same feeling. L.A. is interesting because its highway system is so vast. This is also the place where highways were invented, a part of our history that people usually forget. It makes me think my project here is not really about the roads specifically. It's really about Los Angeles, being a foreigner and being able to have a different look on things and be able to discover each object encountered through an adventure of perception.

How is American/California car culture viewed in France?

I really don't know! We see all the Hollywood movies. As I told you, I really didn't expect what I found here. This does not look like a European city. To me it looked like a gigantic highway system with rest areas; especially the north suburb where I was first.

Do you have a car? How does walking the city influence your work or concept of the city?

I don't have a car but I drive sometimes. Last year, I came to L.A. on a cross country road trip after landing in New York. A lot of yellow lines on the way! But my goal was more to park everyday and walk in these mighty landscapes and deserts this country has. I am very fascinated by the act of walking in many ways. I like the mechanics of it, the fact that it is a constant forward loss of balance corrected permanently in rhythm. I actually started doing art by walking; I was going out in the streets of my city at night with a spray can, walking for hours to paint everywhere. It activates my whole body and mind, I start to breathe properly, I start to see the city more accurately, its my meditation.

Cal Trans District 7 | Photo Courtesy of Simon Rouby.
Cal Trans District 7 | Photo Courtesy of Simon Rouby.

YELLOW LINE opens July 12, 2012. Opening and outdoor projection 7-9pm at the
Caltrans District 7 Building, 100 South Main Street, Los Angeles CA 90012.

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