Emi Fontana: Why an Italian Is Producing Great Public art in L.A.

The City of Angels has an Italian Medici with flaming red hair and a fondness for animals prints.

The art patron in question is Emi Fontana, the Milan-bred founder of the non-profit West of Rome, which has been producing stellar public art displays of the works of Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Olafur Eliasson in private residences, on Sunset Strip jumbotrons and on billboards.

Sherman and Kruger, along with Marilyn Minter and Jenny Holzer, participated in the ongoing Women in the City installation that stretches from Hollywood and Highland to Pasadena. The latest edition of Women in the City features Jennifer Bolande's "Plywood Curtains," displayed in vacant storefronts along Wilshire Boulevard and a haunting live performance of monsters and spirits by artist Marnie Weber in a local cemetery. Bolande and Weber also have a special installation showcased at the Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ALAC) opening reception on Thursday.

Later this year, West of Rome will produce a parade through Downtown Los Angeles orchestrated by musician Arto Lindsay and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.When I asked Fontana about her trademark style, she responded in an email: "Fashion is for women without style." I briefly chatted with Fontana on West of Rome on the eve of the ALAC opening.

Max Padilla: How did you end up in Los Angeles?
Emi Fontana: I started coming here in 2000 because of love. (It was Mike Kelley. We are not a couple any more but we have a good working relationship.)
In 2005, I started the West of Rome project. I started to close my gallery in Milano because I kind of had it with commercial business, especially with the constriction of a white box space. I'm better as a producer than an art dealer. I see myself as a facilitator to produce challenging artwork from artists.
Padilla: How did you come up with West of Rome?
Fontana: The first time I came to L.A. in 1998, on the plane I was reading John Fante. He was an American and immigrant from Southern Italy -- I'm originally from Southern Italy. I always love his take on Los Angeles, especially Hollywood and Beverly Hills, because he was working as a script writer. One of his most funny novels is called "West of Rome." The name indicates a non place.
Padilla: Do you feel there was a lack of public/accessible art in L.A.?
Fontana: The definition of public art to me means everything and means nothing because for me, all art is public. Art has to be public by definition and in a way It has to be accessible to any audience not just a work in a museum or an art gallery. So if one driver or one passerby who never heard about contemporary art, this persona can look at whatever we are showing -- people who are not normally exposed to contemporary art
Padilla: How does public art in Los Angeles compare to that in Rome?
Fontana: Rome used to have good public art in ancient times. [Laughs] There is nothing like West of Rome in Italy.
Padilla: How did you come up with Women in the City?
Fontana: It's totally my concept; I've always been very interested in women artists.
I chose to start with Barbara Kruger. Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman -- these artists were important to me as a young woman interested in contemporary art.
Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer's art is very much connected with street almost like guerilla.
Padilla: What do Jennifer Bolande's "Plywood Curtains" say about retail in LA?
Fontana: There is something more profound than just real estate because the decline of retail is social. People don't go in small stores -- that is a change that is happening in the consumer culture.
Padilla: Why did you base West of Rome in Pasadena?
Fontana: I live in South Pasadena. I really like the Eastside, like West of Rome East of L.A.
The Westside is so boring, it's so predictable, it's so cliche of Los Angeles. A lot of artists are living here. It's the part of the city that I feel more authentic somehow.
Padilla: Favorite place?
Fontana: I really love East L.A. The industrial landscape you find in that area is
very reminiscent of an Antonioni movie like "Red Desert." I love Boyle Heights -- the Mexican food.
Padilla: How does West of Rome fund itself?
Fontana: West of Rome gets funding from public and private and corporate contributors. Of course money is a big challenge, but I hope that West of Rome will get full acknowledgment for being an asset to the city of Los Angeles.
I'm still living off art sales as I did in the past. My job as creative director of West of Rome doesn't get paid at all. When someone still try to raise suspicion of conflict of interest, I just look around to what the art system has become, and I burst in a big laugh!