‘I’m desperate’, says the white A4 paper sign in his hands, although Gillian Wearing’s straight-faced model doesn’t immediately look it. His handwriting matches his own bearing, upright, orderly, neatly pulled together. The photograph forms part of the artist’s famous and frequently disarming series, for which she invited passers-by to make ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ (1992–3).
I’m pleased to see it’s one of 25 British works of art selected (by public vote) for this year’s instalment of ‘Art Everywhere’. For six weeks this summer, it will take its place on selected advertising hoardings across the country, an unsettling sign among many to ponder on the commute. It seems a singularly fitting, and potentially challenging, choice.
‘Art Everywhere’, which launched last year and has since been taken up in the US, is an ambitious attempt to open up the nation’s art collections and promote them to a wider public. Last year’s two-week project achieved significant visibility and publicity for Britain’s art, but it wasn’t without problems. Several commentators questioned whether enough thought had been put into the works’ placement and format: large paintings were squeezed into tube carriages, intricate ones blurred into insignificance on busy motorways. It will be interesting to see whether those issues are addressed this year, and whether they’re acknowledged on the website, whose blog would be a great place to host some of the ensuing discussions (but whose last post seems already to have declared the ‘mission accomplished!’)
The gallery below shows some of the works that will be on display from 21 July. Patrick Caufield’s colourful Pottery and Gilbert & George’s stained glass-like stack of figures can surely hold their own in advertising territory – drawing on some of the graphic tricks that designers do, they both have a degree of post-Pop contemporary clout. Julia Margaret Cameron’s 19th-century photograph might not fare so well. Will people stop to notice the date (1867), and recognise the pioneering significance of her close-cropped portraits, which took hours and countless exposures to make, now that instant photography, brooding fashion shoots and sepia filters are the norm? Some of the paintings could be deployed to fun thematic effect – I’d like to see Augustus Leopold Egg’s bored and sleepy Travelling Companions on the slow train into the city, or Constable’s cloud studies opening ironic narrow windows in the high frieze of adverts on an Underground carriage.
For a full list of exhibited artworks visit the ‘Art Everywhere’ website.
‘Art Everywhere’ runs from 21 July–31 August 2014.
A good advert for American art? Art Everywhere US (Louise Nicholson)
Art Everywhere 2013 (James Draney)