If I were a signlet’s say a butt-ugly dinky sign hanging in the window of a Charlotte Avenue junk shop, a sign that read CloSed FoR RePeaRS in sloppily painted red letters on yellow cardboardI would pray for Nashville artist John Baeder to find me, buy me, and take me home to his personal collection. For Baeder is that rare individual who not only gets aesthetic pleasure from such misspelled, awkward, homemade signshe also finds little epiphanies about human nature in them. After widely collecting and photographing signs for over 30 years, he’s produced a prolonged love letter/photo album for us in the form of a newly released book entitled Sign Language: Street Signs As Folk Art.
In this Abrams paperback, Baeder gently rhapsodizes about the many thousands of signs he’s seen and cherished, sharing 205 photographs of some of his favorites with the reader. The reproductions are handily divided into a dozen categories, including “Humor in Misspellings,” “Beauty in Letterforms,” “Divining the Future” and “Poignant Black Church Signs,” and many are accompanied by short captions explaining their discovery or context. None of them fails to raise a slight smile of delight or affection, and several are even quite profound. It’s an ideal book for anyone who understands the passion for gathering collections of any sort.
You may think a plaque that warns customers NO LOUD CUSSING PLEASE is self-evidentno big deal, what’s the attraction? Yet a moment’s reflection informs us of the small joke here: Is quiet cussing OK in this establishment? Indeed, what sort of place is this? Who lettered that sign, and why did he have to put it up? Why are the letters smeared? It’s as if the sound of someone cussing in the joint had actually jangled them! And that word: cussing. Cuss is both a noun and a verb, and it has an archaic, even slangy quality to my ears. Why “cussing,” and not “swearing” or “cursing”? Are they just too formal for the clientele?
There are other examples, if your preference is for the direct and simple kind of sign: SLOW DOWN WATch FOR KidS + JeSUS. This one plays off nicely with bubba’s coming soon. There’s even the politically incorrect sign, taken from the rear window of an auto belonging to some newlyweds: SHE GOT HiM TODAY HE’S GONNA GET HER TONiGHT!
Cussing and Jesus aside, there’s more to Sign Language than drolleries. Baeder also makes a strong case for the beauty and graphic power of signs that appear to have been hastily, thoughtlessly or casually done. Witness the many signs dominated by a near-childish, inconsistent hand, freely mixing upper- and lower-case letters and several different sizes of type. Observe the dripping enamel, the wavy rays or jagged bursts surrounding key words, the topsy-turvy sway of sentences either crammed into too small of a space or wriggling across an open plane. Check out the inventive, spontaneous acts of thought taking ghastly and goofy forms in all sorts of delightfully amateurish ways.
To rummage through this book is just plain fun, but it’s also to revel in a treasure hoard of weird calligraphy. As Baeder says in the remarks for one category: “There is something appealing, arousing and arresting about sign painters who make words, thoughts, ideaseven simple proclamationsinto specific shapes and use space creatively. In most instances, they do so unconsciously. Often, they reveal a visual audacity that turns itself into playful inventiveness. This makes me take a second look, ignites my awareness, and awakens my spirit.”
Elsewhere, Baeder equates this inventiveness with the rhythms, melodies and improvisations of jazz. He identifies both the emotional content of the messages and the visual qualities of these signs with jazz, and he describes the best kind of sign as a “Charlie Parker.” Indeed, there are many examples here fitting that accolade, notably one reproduced on page 112 in which the letters writhe and twist like a wailing congregation; they seem to leap off the page. Naturally, the sign beckons a worshipper to Sunday service.
Sign Language isn’t a work of total quality; like a live jazz performance, there are a few rough spots in its design. There’s a lot more white space on some pages than necessary, and a number of photographs should have been larger in size or tinted with a single color for better visual effect. Baeder’s introductory essay seems to end arbitrarily with a clunk, as if the editor had been using word count instead of thought count, and the remarks accompanying each category are set in a bigger typeface than the essay, which is most annoying. I also wish there had been more food paintings as well as figurative signsmay we look forward to Volume Two?
As for the covereyuck! It has all the classic hallmarks of a design-by-committee, and it should serve as a severe warning about the mounting abuses of Quark and Photoshop. Baeder also loves his collection so much that he occasionally tells us more than we may want to know, but he should be forgiven. How can you not forgive someone who says things like: “I care for the uneducated hand. I care for those people’s need to communicate. Their voices come from the depths of their hearts, which gives them a sense of purity that can transform their messages into poetry.”
Indeed, the flaws of the text and design are really quite minor when weighed against the pleasures of engaging this publication. Sign Language is only the latest in a trio of Baeder paperbacks about the margins of pop culture. You may be familiar with Diners, which reproduces scores of Baeder’s photo-realist oil paintings of roadside diners, diner-cars and other forms of eateries once common throughout the United States. Or perhaps you’ve seen Gas, Food and Lodging, which contains reproductions of postcards, photographs and illustrations of attractions from the now vanished service economy of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Even better, through May 25, you can head over to Cumberland Gallery and see a select exhibition of actual photographs used in Sign Language.
Sign Language is one of all too few books that encourages us to appreciate the kind of personal expression that’s rapidly becoming extinct in our passion for slick visual messages. The growth of the desktop computer, with its deceptively easy software packages that make everyone a “designer,” and the stamp of the corporate logo over our visual landscape have hastened that extinction. Baeder’s book demonstrates how unsophisticated signs are often more artistic and semiotically effective than the more polished ones littering our visual landscape.
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