I watched the movie Beautiful Losers a few months back and was totally taken by the work of Margaret Kilgallen. (She was also featured on a great episode of Art:21 a while back, though I’d totally forgotten having seen it until I started watching the movie and recognized her work.) I’ve been thinking a lot about public space and how people create identity within it, how it can represent individuals to the community and communities to the rest of the world. Kilgallen talks a lot, in both Beautiful Losers and Art: 21, about finding beauty in hand-painted signs, the sort of self-taught work that covers a lot of mom-and-pop places and how it reflects such care and investment in the business. This kind of work, though it’s in commercial spaces, says so much more about a community than the kind of advertising and signage we see today that tends to be outsourced and sanitized. Kilgallen’s work embraces that hand-made aesthetic– elaborate hand-painted text that mimics old-timey signage and figures that have a sort of awkward, folk art look to them. It’s really wonderful stuff.
Going along with this, I’m thinking lately about projects for the seminar I’m taking right now about the uses and meanings of public space. Of course I’m drawn to public art and what it means for a community, and for our research project I’m playing with the idea of studying murals around my neighborhood of Pilsen. Its been a primarily Mexican neighborhood since the 1960’s and I’ve heard it said that we’ve got the highest concentration of Mexican-style murals outside of Mexico itself. There are maybe a dozen that I see on a regular basis, just within blocks of our apartment, so it’s definitely a big part of this neighborhood.
Around Chicago there’s also definitely a lot of the hand-painted signage that Kilgallen references in her work. I see it most on corner stores and auto repair shops, but lots of other businesses have them, too.
I know some people aren’t huge fans of this kind of work (that last photo calls the airbrushing on that shop “garish”), and probably wouldn’t consider this advertising true public art. But I think that there’s a sense of beauty, and beautification, in these pieces, in as much as they’re marketing the hot dogs, mufflers and laundry services for sale. Communities chose to express themselves in different ways with the resources and spaces that are available within them, and to examine the messages and work without strict boundaries about what is art and what isn’t makes for a richer experience overall.