Remember being a rowdy young teenager, skating around where you know you weren’t allowed, thinking about stealing road signs and knocking down mailboxes? Of course both those things are illegal but what if those street signs were pieces of art and worth something more than just a hidden collection of felonies on your bedroom wall? Ryan McGinness has created just that congruently with New York City’s Department of Transportation in his new project Signs, 2014. His series features 50 vinyl on aluminum signs posted around the streets of Manhattan that he fabricated and installed himself. Here shown are the “notes” accompanied with each piece and might be the only chance you’ll have to view the works. “While technically on view until August 30, 2014, these public works of art are slowly falling victim to the underground entrepreneurial mindset of NYC, and disappearing from their present locations.”
The Goldfinch, last year's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt, about a young man's attachment to a treasured museum work, reversal of fortune, and subsequent journey of self-discovery, makes an interesting case for art imitating life. Or, as it happened last week, life imitating art imitating life.
Last Monday morning, two young women craned their necks and observed as a worker in steel-toed boots and a fluorescent vest installed a new metal sign next to a blinking traffic light on Park Avenue. At first, there was no reason to think it wasn't just another "Do Not Honk—$250 Fine" warning. At second glance, however, the sign revealed itself to be a bit of powerful tongue-in-cheek street art by contemporary artist Ryan McGinness.
McGinness partnered with New York's Department of Transportation to deploy his subversive and occasionally "graphically surreal or absurd" drawings on 50 eight-by-24-inch oblong aluminum "canvases" around the city. Many of his original sketches for Signs, as the series is known, make geometrically perfect vector images, and appear in McGinness' Sketchbook Selections 2000-2012, published last year by Ginko Press. The enigmatic symbols, presented in a traffic-style trifecta, are like a Rorschach test, and span themes of science, non-linear mindscapes, online dating, baby unicorns, and wealth and excess, with nods to Brancusi and Rodin.
With their tightly controlled use of bold red-white-and-black schemes, the signs are organic to their environs, yet so covetable nearly all disappeared in less than a week. "I assume they were stolen out of desire, and not as a means to protect the public from something they shouldn't be seeing," McGinness said.
He first noticed a number of his works missing near his SoHo studio, and was "annoyed, yet mildly amused"—until he discovered an aggressive campaign was underway to dismount his glowing signs en masse. Confessing a childhood fascination with hijacking power, the artist says he used the iconography of traffic signage to "subvert power, taking the tools of the state to express more personal or poetic notions." In a culture obsessed with aesthetic appropriation, who's borrowing from whom?
Public art is a tricky medium, not only in executing the works legally but in trying to keep them up on the streets. Murals get white-washed or tagged over and objects (like a door painted by Banksy or Invader mosaic pieces) get physically removed from where they were installed, often so that thieves can sell them for a quick profit.
In New York recently, the artist Ryan McGinness was commissioned by the New York City Department of Transportation to erect 50 signs around New York. Known for fusing his signature, minimal graphics with an art practice spanning painting, sculpture, and installation, McGinness obliged and was given total creative freedom to beautify the city with abstract signage.
Things went bad when the signs started getting systematically removed, as if the thief (or thieves) knew exactly where and when each one would go up next. While the objects are valuable to a certain extent, their removal is alarming and disheartening. In many ways, it's destroyed a project meant for public enjoyment, not private gain.
We spoke with Ryan to get his take on what's happened so far. He let us know that a detective is on the case and that surveillance footage is being studied.
What has happened with the signs is still not quite resolved. In fact, there’s a detective working on the case on behalf of the Department of Transportation. They’re doing a full-on investigation, which also involves getting surveillance footage from the businesses that have cameras in some of these locations and also some of the government buildings downtown. Someone stole a sign from Centre Street.
It is a bit curious to us, because it seems as if they were systematically removed. You would have had to know where they were being installed. It's only really speculation as to what that really means, but they were taken really quickly, and nobody really knew where they were. They weren’t even up long enough for anyone to know precisely where they were.
Furthermore, there’s a real expense involved in the production of these signs. It’s the same material they use to make street signs—waterjet cut aluminum with a few layers of vinyl applied to it. Then there’s a huge labor cost that’s involved for the city to install them.
In the meantime, I think the Department of Transportation has remade and put up some of the signs, but I don’t think all 50 are back up. It has taken everyone involved aback. If we thought they were going to be stolen, we would’ve used tamper proof bolts or something. We used regular hexagonal bolts that anyone could’ve removed with a wrench or socket wrench. We had no idea.
In terms of how he was commissioned to do the project, he says,
I’ve always been interested in amazing signs and researching new materials. A lot of my research led me to find the one place that makes all the signs for the Department of Transportation. It’s a signs shop out in Maspeth, Queens. I just called them last summer out of the blue, and I said, “I understand you guys make the signs for the city, would you make some signs for me?” And they did.
I was paying them to make my work, and I was doing different tests with different vinyls and different materials. They were into it, and I think they were excited to make anything that's not a regulation sign—something a little more interesting. The person who I was in touch with said, "You know, we have a public art department. I should put you in touch with that person.” So I got in touch with person in charge of the public art project, and we continued a dialogue into the fall and through the winter. Every year they do something in the summer on the streets, so it happened this summer.
While we're disappointed in the selfish destruction of McGinness' project, it's a reminder about the temporality of public art and how no art is safe when on the street. We hope there's a resolution in this particular scenario, and that society's attitude toward public art changes for the better.
In an official partnership with the New York City Department of Transportation, Ryan McGinness has erected 50 signs throughout Manhattan. The red-and-black compositions are the approximate shape and material of a standard street sign, but feature abstract visual language intended to delight and inspire passers by.
Some people have been inspired differently than others. Since their arrival three weeks ago, as many as 40 of the signs have been stolen in a kind of highbrow street crime that has the artist and the DoT miffed, reports the Wall Street Journal.
McGinness’s faith in the community and the notion of public art is understandably shaken. “When I caught one of the first few disappearing, I was mildly amused. [But later], it felt a little more aggressive. It made me just plain angry,” he told the WSJ, noting that the installation didn’t make it more than three days before it was largely dismantled by thieves.
Twelve of the signs, which cost about $800 each to produce and install, have been replaced, this time using hardware that should be trickier to remove. “There’s a lot of expense involved, and a lot of labor. To have an individual steal them or to have them stolen by the public really flips that mind-set,” McGinness lamented.
While the New York Police Department is aware of the thefts and working to curtail them, for now we can only hope that one of the criminals will be stupid enough to try to sell a sign on Ebay.