San Francisco

Dusty Madsen, Member’s Only, 2012, 1 Shot enamel on metal, 8 x 24". From “An American Language.”

Dusty Madsen, Member’s Only, 2012, 1 Shot enamel on metal, 8 x 24". From “An American Language.”

“An American Language”

Guerrero Gallery

Dusty Madsen, Member’s Only, 2012, 1 Shot enamel on metal, 8 x 24". From “An American Language.”

“An American Language”
Guerrero Gallery

Any passerby who chanced upon this group show would have immediately realized that all was not business as usual: Suspended from Guerrero Gallery’s ceiling was a hulking wooden swing-stage scaffold bedaubed with enamel stains and labeled SIGN PAINT. Perhaps some viewers would recall an exhibition mounted by Guerrero last summer, when the gallery presented pieces by designers affiliated with San Francisco’s New Bohemia Signs, the city’s oldest sign shop, alongside the work of Jeff Canham and Stephen Powers, who, after cutting their teeth on sign painting and graffiti, respectively, went on to receive wider recognition showing in various contemporary art venues. Few of the participants in “An American Language” have this crossover status. All but one make their living primarily as sign painters, and the majority of the hundred-odd small, handpainted objects here were produced expressly for the show—an effort, one imagines, that may have seemed like a diversionary experiment.

While the exhibition had a particular local inflection—a third of those featured are Bay Area residents, and sign painting was one of various subcultural pursuits prized by San Francisco’s so-called Mission School, most notably by the late Margaret Kilgallen—its resonance was beyond regional. Little of the work slots neatly into big-A art-historical, institutional, or market contexts, but “An American Language” did afford a number of avenues for an outside-looking-in vantage onto such structures. Taken together, the assortment of panels, executed in 1 Shot enamel on wood or metal, functioned as a primary-source survey of sign painting’s conventions—from the use of buzzy color pairings to maximize brightness, to the devising of letterforms consonant with a given message, to the onus of balancing visual interest with legibility. These were among the lessons absorbed by the generation of artists for whom commercial art was a rite of passage (Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rosenquist, Ruscha), and the multiple formal sympathies between industrial and fine-art production evidenced here signaled an ongoing cross-pollination. For example, the fanciful sundry fonts of Everything, 2012, by Mats!? conjure Jack Pierson’s word sculptures, while Gary Green sends up the same storefront signage as Adam McEwen, and Greg Jones rejiggers messages in an analogously humorous, if subtler, way in Margret’s Malted: Where Friends Meet . . . and Families Begin, 2012. That many of these signs might pass as fine art—see Kenji Nakayama’s abstractions of single letters—says as much about the skill (and wit) of their makers, whose trade is currently enjoying a minor resurgence, as it does about the proliferation of handicraft in contemporary production and the facility with which much of such work can be institutionally accommodated. Several selections model the conflicting impulses of craft-based practices—namely, the awareness that the handmade object, however singular or romanticized, is hardly exempt from systems of commerce (signs, after all, are for selling things). For every lament about the changes wrought by techno-capitalism—Mike Meyer depicts an angry grandma figure griping that computer-aided “vynull” is not sign painting—was an implicit acknowledgment that “vintage” and “artisanal” are now only so many marketing terms. HANDPAINTED: THE WAY YA LIKE 'EM, declares a sign by Bob Dewhurst.

Perhaps the most interesting way to consider this exhibition, though, is as a type of thought exercise: From the perspective of a (relative) outsider, what does, or should, contemporary art look like? What are its affinities, its bugaboos? In these signs, one saw a mix of the right-now (Meyer’s incantation DON'T TEXT WHILE DRIVING!) and the self-consciously almost-retro (Sean Starr’s How Soon Is Now?, 2012, and a second panel with a lyric from that song by the Smiths); a hairline between plainspoken candor and insider repartee (evident in the juxtaposition of signs by Dusty Madsen with those by Josh Luke); and a leeriness toward big business in some cases (Mark Oatis’s and Scott Greenig’s True Identity, 1998, includes figures representing “shady salesmen” and “thirsty accountants”) while, in others, a surrender to the almighty dollar (Gary Martin’s Cash Is King, 2012). All of which, as a take on the current moment, sounds about right.

Lisa Turvey