Artscape show brings signs of life to city streets

July 14, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

SHARP-EYED Baltimoreans may have noticed that the city has been putting up some pretty unusual-looking signs over the past week or so.

What, for example, is one to make of a notice painted on regulation sheet-metal traffic-sign stock that reads "Free Thinking Zone"? How about an ocher sign with groups of stick figures on it that look like happy people and their pets?

If you've happened to catch sight of any of these whimsical messages (or, in some cases, nonmessages), rest assured that the Department of Public Works hasn't taken leave of its senses. It's all part of Artscape '96, Baltimore's annual festival of the arts weekend that officially begins this Friday.

"300 Signs" is an exhibit that plays off the taken-for-granted realm of the humble street sign, a wilderness of common-sense but authoritative injunctions that command us not to turn on red or park in front of fire stations.

We are hardly ever aware of the ways in which we conform to these unprepossessing messages until we transgress their commands: Then there's a ticket on the windshield or flashing blue lights in the rearview mirror to remind us that crime doesn't pay.

"300 Signs" turns this utilitarian attitude to signage on its head. The city asked dozens of artists to design signs that prompt introspection and imaginative dialogue rather than unthinking obedience.

"Part of the idea is getting art out of the gallery and the museum and into people's living spaces so they can enjoy it," says Peter Walsh, a local artist-curator who is also co-editor of the new periodical Link: A Critical Journal on the Arts in Baltimore and the World.

"The idea of public art traditionally has been monuments and historical markers and tourist signs," Walsh says. "Many of the works in the '300 Signs' project are trying to make these genres more subjective, more idiosyncratic."

Walsh, for example, has contributed a sign to the project recalling the efforts of a group of now-forgotten local tinkerers to launch a manned flight to Venus from Baltimore in 1928.

"The hope of it is not just to tell people an odd thing occurred but to make them look at their environment differently," he says.

Similarly, artist Pat Hornburg has created a colorful series of commemorative signs celebrating city places that usually are allowed to go unremarked. Her fanciful, childlike paintings on regulation traffic-sign stock pay homage to such underappreciated landmarks of Baltimore as The Block and Pulaski Highway.

"Some of them play off being signs. Some are just straight paintings -- abstract, realistic and everything in between," says Walsh. "Linda DePalma did a sign on Charles Street that's this quirky, see-no-evil, hear-no-evil image with little devils. It's very graphic and jumps out at you. Some of the signs are designed to blend in, while others seem to jump out at you."

Tom Dixon created a fantastical, three-dimensional birdhouse sculpture from an old tin coffeepot, bits of string, beads and sticks affixed to another regulation-size sign mounted near the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point.

It's the kind of thing that makes you stop and look twice, but what's it mean? Maybe nothing, but that's something each viewer has to decide for him or herself.

Or take Western Cell Division's ambitious series recapitulating the 14 Stations of the Cross, which will run from North Avenue down Mount Royal Avenue to Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church. The 14 Stations of the Cross are done as if they were ordinary street signs, though their subject is an intensely religious theme we usually expect to be treated in the manner of a Leonardo or Michelangelo.

"We were fascinated by the way signs have meaning because of context," says Kathy O'Dell, one of the three panelists who selected the show's artists.

"Usually we take [street signs] for granted. So this show is about bringing the taken-for-granted issues to the surface. People may laugh, be annoyed -- or maybe they won't even notice. All sorts of responses are possible."

The fact that the signs are being put up all over the city, not just along the Mount Royal Avenue corridor where Artscape will occur, is a gesture intended to emphasize the public, egalitarian character of the works and their creators.

One might also think of the project as a postmodern response to the ubiquity of utilitarian and commercial imagery. Many of the artists employ the visual language of advertising, the difference being they're not necessarily trying to sell you something, except perhaps a personal vision.

In any case, we know how to respond to a sign that says "Buy Coke!" But how to respond to a birdhouse stuck on a sign in the middle of the street? I think I already can hear the laughter.

Artscape events

A complete schedule of Artscape events will appear in a pullout in Thursday's Live section.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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