Jason Willaford is bringing a whole new meaning to the vinyl comeback.
Although his work resembles that of mid-20th century abstract painters, the Dallas-based artist uses thread and petroleum-based vinyl instead of a brush and oil paint, transforming billboards that have been vandalized, damaged or just run their course into quilted wall hangings.
“I like the idea of this shiny, sort of plastic, petroleum-based material. It’s a more modern material ... with this old way of putting it together — quilting. I like that juxtaposition,” Willaford said, standing among several of his pieces made from repurposed billboards in Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center, where his exhibit “Vinyl Exposed” is on view through Aug. 22.
While viewers might be drawn by the bright colors and glossy sheen of the vinyl wall hangings, a closer look will allow them to appreciate the layers — both figurative and literal — of Willaford’s work, said Steve Boyd, exhibits manager at Oklahoma Contemporary.
The Florida State University graduate’s vinyl collages comment on issues like the excesses of American consumer culture, the overwhelming flow of information in the Internet age and the rapid pace of technological advancement.
“Whenever you first walk in, it’s ‘wow.’ ... Photographs don’t do it justice,” Boyd said. “Even if you’re looking at it from straight-on, if you walk over here (to the side), it’s something completely different. You can really see the depth and the texture.”
Although his medium is more modern than, say, oil paint, it also evokes a nostalgia shared with vinyl albums, vinyl furniture and vinyl car seats, and Boyd said many people will be able to relate to Willaford’s billboard-based work, which is reminiscent of pop art from the late 1950s.
An ordinary drive with his teenage daughter, Camille, now 17, turned into artistic inspiration when Willaford spotted a Whole Foods billboard that had been tagged with spray paint, turning the slogan “organic land ahead” into “vacant land ahead.” He wondered what happened to billboards that had been vandalized or discarded — and began to ponder the future of the oversized signs themselves.
“I started thinking about, technologically, how fast we’re moving ... and how billboards will be obsolete in another 10 or 15 years, and how it’s something we grew up with traveling in cars and on road trips and making up and like playing games with them. My daughter doesn’t look out the window anymore; she just looks at the cellphone,” Willaford said.
“They’ve influenced artists: You look at (Oklahoma-bred Ed) Ruscha and different artists that like traveled, and their work was about traversing the United States. ... Look at people driving now, they’re looking at their phones. I mean, that’s one of the biggest problems we have is people driving and texting. They’re barely looking at the road let alone off the road 200 feet at a billboard.”
He called the sign company that had put up the now-ruined billboard and learned that the heavy-duty vinyl banners are just thrown away after they’re taken down. So, he arranged to buy several discarded billboards, including, as luck would have it, the tagged one that inspired him in the first place.