Words are meaningless—until, of course, they have meaning. Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure made major headway in the world of words with his treatise on signs, which consist of the relationship between the signifier (a symbol) and the signified (that which it represents). For example, a sign is the word “tree,” the signifier is the sound “tree” and the signified is the thought “tree.” “Tree” in itself has no inherent value—it neither looks like a tree nor sounds like a tree—it’s just an arbitrary term.
John Randall Nelson further deconstructs the relationship between the signifier and the signified using a literal interpretation of signs—notably the ones found on street corners. In Alter-Native Signs: New Paintings and Sculptures, Nelson posits street signs in new contexts—bisecting them, incorporating them into paintings and conglomerating them into sculptures.
The effect is the sublimation of expected meaning to new, uncharted interpretation. The blatant imperatives and authoritarian instructions are rendered meaningless, silly even.
In “Vernacular,” a band twice bearing the word “end” crisscrosses a sign for Priest Street like a railroad marker. Nelson recycles materials as well as symbolism, even incorporating a functional metal post. Painted on the work is a blue snake, similar to that of the Gadsen (“Don’t Tread On Me”) flag. What one makes of these combinations of words and associations varies, but it’s certainly foreboding. One should use caution on that side of the tracks.
Works such as “Not a Wealthy Man” are just as loosely compiled. The piece shows the head of a crowned boy in profile. Below him is the word “head,” presumably snagged from a sign that once read “ahead.” Whether the text is literal or figurative is debatable.
Other works incorporate text to similar effect, provoking interest or queries—words either add meaning or jettison it altogether.
In addition to text, a number of other aspects marry the works. Though the pieces that populate Gebert Contemporary come in many shapes, sizes and media, they all carry muted tones and beige washes, which give them an antique, lived-in feel. Nelson is liberal with paint, layering representational and nonrepresentational elements for depth, as well as assorted objects, including playing cards, book pages and even Scrabble tiles. The end results are weighty works (this is not Ikea-grade art).
Central to many of the works are cartoonish antiheroes. Nelson depicts impish, stylized renderings of people, rabbits and other creatures with open mouths and blank, somehow threatening stares. None of the characters display overt menace; often they are performing ostensibly sweet acts: unicycling, dancing, holding hands.
The soft hues and the incorporation of intricate frames, as well as the side-show characters within the works, combine for cozy, coy art. Nelson’s work is at once urban and rustic, unsettling and folksy—reminiscent of San Francisco’s Mission School in the ’90s. (Nelson’s series of framed works distinctly resemble a prominent graffiti artist of that period, Barry McGee, who created sculptural clusters by stacking framed works.)
Despite an abundance of discernible terms, clear associations in Alter-Native Signs are absent. Viewers can make whatever logical leaps suit them, linking words and images where they wish. No traffic rules apply.