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artist's statement


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Across the West, and probably all over the US, abandoned commercial signs preside over sidewalks, parking lots, or overgrown fields, their once vital messages now removed by time or erased by their overseers. The enterprises that the signs once announced have disappeared, the lot has been scraped clean or the buildings that used to house them are still be there but seemingly unoccupied. Either way it's clear that nothing of consequence happens at the sites today; the derelict markers stand in for what has been lost.

Empty frames, broken neon, bent and rusting sheet metal, peeling paint, business names painted out; these signs have been anonymized, as have the people who once ran the businesses that they announced. Vestiges from a long-gone era of small business owned and run by real people serving viable communities, the very idea now seeming as quaint as an old black and white movie starring Jimmy Stewart.

It's a well-known story by now. Freeways routed traffic away from downtowns all across the country, becoming the feeders to big box-stores and malls hosting corporate chains. The formerly vital real estate in the incorporated town, now a husk, is given the euphemistic moniker "Historic District". The final nail in the coffin, or booby prize. The same thing happened to the "miracle mile" strips leading into and out of town, except that they received no such historic designation.

Today, rapacious American capitalism is hailed as "disruptive". That's code for 'your job has disappeared', or 'your small business can't compete with the ruthless "efficiencies" of the big corporate players'. And you can see the results of that disruption in the landscape.

The exuberance and variety that the old signs displayed in their prime is still evident. Designers and craftsmen once conjured up and assembled these fantasies-on-a-pole, each one a unique response to the needs and aesthetics of the family-owned business that commissioned it. Now identical markers appear

at every corporate "unit", no doubt all made with mass-production techniques at a centralized location and trailered across the country to be installed, homogenizing the landscape. In turn the old sign-making businesses, offering a creative service, became victims of corporate branding and the gutting of their mom & pop clients. We should all mourn the loss of those designers, neon tube benders, sheet metal workers and sign painters.

There is an irony in this, of course. Just after their '60s heyday these signs were derided as a tacky blight on the landscape, their blazing neon and light bulb festooned arrows evidence of a collective insult to the visual environment. It was collateral damage in the war against billboards and a misplaced and self-conscious striving for sophistication. The new bland corporate signage suffers no such criticism, and the business model behind it finds no serious challenges in the culture. But the old signs, though garish, showed a vibrant spirit that would be welcome today if only it could find a purchase. Where intact signs can still be found they are celebrated as "Americana".

It's clear why the small businesses disappeared, but the question remaining is why are their vestigial relics still standing? In many cases the buildings associated with them are gone or have been replaced, yet the empty signs remain. It's difficult to get anyone to answer that question, but it seems safe to say that some universal perversion of the local sign codes are to blame. Apparently, it's easier to get a new building permit than a new sign permit, hence nobody wants to remove a grandfathered sign, even if they are no longer using it.

So these monuments stand rusting and degraded, now ironically announcing their own uselessness. But if you can see it there's beauty and humanity in that too, and in acknowledging what they have come to symbolize, the obliteration of an economy that provided an actual space for entrepreneurship, not the mere rhetorical one touted by politicians today.