On Exhibit: signs, signs, everywhere a sign | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: signs, signs, everywhere a sign 

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Last winter artists Marc Fischer and Matti Allison created a series of collages in which they arranged photos from ads and magazines to suggest a relationship among the images. The Logan Square gallery Temporary Services displayed the collages in its storefront window. "People walked by and really understood it, without understanding it was artwork," says Fischer. "It made sense to them."

After their display came down, Fischer tried to think of other places to put the collages where the non-gallery-hopping public could see them. Stapling or pasting the pieces to a wall was out, he says, "because the people who put up huge posters for movies and concerts could plaster right over them." Then he hit on the idea of affixing the images on the hinged freestanding signs--or sandwich boards--used by businesses from upscale restaurants to downtown parking garages. "It's a form that the public already understands," he says. "And it seems like a form that artists could use and then move around without having to ask for permission."

Fischer, who received an MFA from the University of Chicago in 1995, decided to organize an exhibit around the idea. He started calling other artists, especially those he knew were "already thinking about how to engage the public without them necessarily knowing that they're viewing an art project." After the show, the artists would leave their pieces in public places and monitor what happened to them.

One of those Fischer contacted was Jim Duignan, whose namesake grandfather was beaten to death with a pipe in the alley behind a Lincoln Park bar in 1958. His family was subsequently barred from the pub. Duignan, who was born shortly after his grandfather died, decided to create a sandwich board memorial that he and his father will leave in the spot where his grandfather was attacked. One side features an enlarged photo of his grandfather, "who looked just like James Joyce"; the other reproduces the poem that's on the deceased's tombstone. "I'm making more than one," Duignan says. "I'm going to replace it every time it's taken, and I'm sure it's going to be taken."

Other pieces include a seaworthy sign on water skis with a canvas sail by Oli Watt, who also made a bird feeder designed to attract pigeons. Zena Sakowski and Rob Kelly created a series of nine signs that can be turned into miniature-golf holes, each outfitted with its own club, balls, and map showing the way to the next one. Erik Brown has made two versions of his old-fashioned valet parking sign--he'll trash one beforehand in hopes that the public will take pity on the other and leave it alone. Michael Piazza and a teenager from the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center have created a variation on an eye chart that shows the increasingly harsher sentences for young offenders.

"I've tried to dissuade the artists from signing their names on them or making it clear that it's an art project," says Fischer. "I'm sort of turned off by art projects like Cows on Parade, where everything is taken credit for on the piece and announced and everyone knows they're coming. Most of ours are going to areas that are underserved by official art projects, and we won't be announcing ourselves."

To provide context at the exhibit, he's created a slide show of signs he found throughout the city. "I prefer the badly made ones, where it seems like the message was so urgent they used whatever materials were at hand and didn't bother to get a professional to do it--they thought their business would be helped if they made it right away," he says. "I saw a nice orange traffic cone, and somebody had written on it in marker, 'Park here and I'll tow your ass.' It was small and unthreatening, and then it had such a nasty message on it."

The opening for "Mobile Sign Systems" is tonight from 7 to 10 (the exhibit will stay up through June 26 and then be dispersed) at Temporary Services, 2890 N. Milwaukee (773-486-3941). It's free.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.

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