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Ongoing Exhibit Presents the Plight of the Modern Sign-Painter

Norma Jeanne Maloney, seen in her Austin studio in 2012, will do live sign painting at the HCCC this Friday through Sunday.
Norma Jeanne Maloney, seen in her Austin studio in 2012, will do live sign painting at the HCCC this Friday through Sunday.
Photo by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon

Some art forms just don’t get no respect, to paraphrase the late, memorable-if-not-necessarily-great Rodney Dangerfield. Sign painting is one of them. I don’t mean to raise false expectations. There will be no Dangerfield jokes in this review. There will, however, be lots of sign painters, because this is a review of the recently opened exhibition “For Hire: Contemporary Sign Painting in America,” on view at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, guest-curated by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.

You might at first think that there wouldn’t be enough of interest in sign painting to warrant an entire exhibition. I did. If so, you’d be wrong. I was. In fact, the interest quotient is great enough not just for an exhibition, but also for a book and a documentary film (on view in the gallery and available at a modest price for streaming online). And interesting as it already is, the show will grow even more so as the weeks pass: HCCC has left a substantial expanse of gallery wall space empty, to be filled with on-the-spot painted signs during the three-month run.

I stopped by the first Saturday after the Friday-night opening, expecting to join a crowd of sign-hungry Houstonians. This is a city of 2.3 million people, after all (6.5 million if you expand to the metro area), so you’d expect that anything going on here would get a good bit of traffic — and I’m not just talking about the freeways. Wasn’t I surprised to be the only visitor? Maybe it’s residual Harvey shock, keeping Houstonians focused elsewhere.

But there was an upside for me. Denton, Texas, sign painters Sean and Kayleigh Starr were there that day, working on their contribution to the exhibition in the making. They gave me a cram-course tutorial in what the show, and sign painting, are all about. First, a visual tutorial as I watched them apply gold leaf to glass, wielding a wide, supple brush, with near-continuous, sensual gestures: a swipe of the brush against the hair (to dissipate static electricity?), a swoop down to scoop up the gold leaf, a sweep across the glass to apply it in its proper spot.

And then Sean opened my eyes to sign painting with some personal history about how he had followed his father into the field and then faced seismic career and craft changes when digital sign technology took over from hand painting in the 1980s. It was an adapt, migrate or perish crisis for tens of thousands of sign painters all over the world, working in a tradition going back centuries that was suddenly blown apart. Sean, being young, adapted, after a period of migration, and found a satisfying living applying his traditional craft in the niche market that still exists for hand-painted signs.

We didn’t get into the art vs. craft minefield. I know Houstonians whose ancestral roots in sign painting are as strong as Sean’s, but who have placed themselves on the art side, while Sean and the others in this show have stayed with signs. Most of those in the show have been painting signs for decades.

Though the signs in “For Hire” are in a gallery, the painters who painted them work for a market. It seems to be a market that demands a vintage look — maybe just a little too much of the “ye olde” for cutting-edge, high art tastes. But when you work for hire, you’d best meet what your market wants. It’s still possible to make striking images and even include satirical messages, as with the silk banners of Chicago-based Shelby Rodeffer’s Sign Painter’s Dogma of 2017, and the grouping of mock-historical druggist signs by Remy Chwae of Los Angeles (Untitled, 2017) touting such wonders as “Cocaine Tablets” at 50¢ a box and “Heroin Hydrochloride” for “Coughs.”

If I hadn’t been clued in by the film to follow the strokes, I might not have looked closely enough at the title sign for the show, by Houston’s own Israel McCloud — a sign painter for 40 years — to really see, and thrill to, the lush sweep of the brush over the surface. Look at the “S” and be ready to swoon.

The course of art history has mostly made the art/craft distinction moot, though if the world ever has to choose between signs and art, it would be smart to choose signs.

If the world ever has to choose between signs and art, it would be smart to choose signs.
If the world ever has to choose between signs and art, it would be smart to choose signs.
Photo by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon

I haven’t yet done the research to prove it, but I’ll bet that the first artists in Houston, and every other place, were sign painters — soon followed by theatrical set painters and itinerant portrait painters — sometimes all in one. (Okay, maybe the housepainters and graffiti etchers preceded them all; have to do that research.) But whoever came first, they would all have been here long before any “fine” artists, who are possible only in a highly refined, and rich, culture.

Back in the day, when the traditional hierarchy of painting reigned strong — that is, history, portrait, genre, landscape and still-life painting, in that order — sign painters didn’t count as artists at all. That hierarchy got blown away in mid-19th-century France by the Impressionists and others, but still, sign painters, or at least the signs they painted, didn’t figure into the art equation.

Toulouse-Lautrec and his cohort came close to bridging that gap when they brought art to the posters pasted on the walls of fin de siècle Paris — but they only did the art; someone else did the signs.

As with so much related to art in our modern world, it may be Marcel Duchamp who turned sign painting into art, with pieces like his Apolinère Enameled of 1916/17, now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It wasn’t quite a sign, but it was a printed tin advertising piece used to promote an industrial paint. And it wasn’t quite one of Duchamp’s famous readymades, since he felt the need to add a few strokes of his own in graphite and enamel to finish it — an “assisted” readymade, the museum website says. But he declared it art, and for a hundred years others have agreed.

Perhaps most famously, pop artists like Andy Warhol, who started as a commercial artist himself; James Rosenquist, who made his living painting billboards before turning the same techniques into fine art; and Ed Ruscha, who wrote the foreword to the book on sign painters I mentioned above, and whose iconic Standard Station of 1966 is just about all sign.

One thing you can’t complain about right now at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft is the signage (or the artage, depending on how you define it). Not that I’m implying there’s ever much to complain about at HCCC. But these days the signs are the show, and they’re pretty cool.

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Also worth a long look when you go to see “For Hire” — especially since you’ll be passing through it anyway — is “Storyline: The Contemporary Quilt.” As you might expect, these are not your grandmother’s tattered, fuchsia piecework. In fact, Aaron McIntosh’s Freshman Magazine, August 2002 (Broken Links), homage to a gay skin mag now made obsolete by ever-present Internet flesh, might well make your grandmother blush, unless she’s a lot more with-it than mine was.

“For Hire: Contemporary Sign Painting in America” and “Storyline: The Contemporary Quilt”
Through January 7, 2018. Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848, crafthouston.org.

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