Untitled III, Providence, Rhode Island 2005. Image © Victoria Crayhon.
“I’ve always done my best thinking on road trips,” says American artist Victoria Crayhon, whose most recent work features old marquee signs found along the highway, on which she’s added her own enigmatic messages. “There’s this self-absorption when you’re driving, and I would end up thinking about all the things I could accomplish, and all the things I wanted that I didn’t have.”
Her “interventions”, created using her own collection of sign letters, which she places using a mechanical hand or by climbing one of the many ladders carried around in her truck, play with the idea of private thoughts writ large in public.
The phrases she chooses correspond to the spot she places them, but they also reference the themes in her work. “Generally I find the location and figure out what I’m going to write based on the outlook, what kind of traffic is going by and the demographic of the town,” she explains. “They’re not directly from my life, but you could say they’re a mixture of truth and fiction. They’re often from little snippets I read. ‘Loosely premeditated action sequences’ came from a review I read about violent film scenes. So I apply that to myself and what I am doing. For a lot of them, I want to use a particular word, referencing either driving or advertising or film, such as ‘neutral’ or ‘satisfied’ or ‘dissolving’ – in some way implying some kind of wanting but not having.”
Some of the old signs – classic Americana symbolising an era of post-war hope and prosperity – found above movie theatres or at highway drive-ins, are still in operation. But most have fallen into disuse, which provides another parallel with the new messages she gives them. “I’m really interested in the demise of movie theatres and drive-ins, many of which no longer exist because everyone wants to watch movies on Netflicks now, they don’t want that same kind of communal experience that movies originated from. I use those spaces to make comment about these changes in technology, and also reference abandonment – which ties in with the text, which is a lot about love and abandonment.”
The interventions are a form of pubic art in themselves, but her photographs and videos of them are more key to the series she’s titled Thoughts on Romance from the Road. “I’m interested in making work that has a life outside of the gallery,” she says. “But I’m also very much interested in the photograph as the only thing that exists after the work disappears.”
One of her early inspirations was the work of Ed Ruscha, along with other artists who work with text and image, such as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and the Guerrilla Girls. And in a more general sense, she respects the ideas explored by the Situationists of the late 1960s and the activist agendas of conceptual artists in the 70s. “But I definitely see myself in the tradition of making a photographic document. I like to make beautiful colour pictures, whereas the artists of the 1970s would make rather shoddy looking prints almost to underline the point of their work.”
Born in New York and now living on Rhode Island, she’s been working in a similar vein since completing her MFA in 1997, starting with Highway Book II, a covert project for which she created long strips of text to cover the “smoking can be dangerous” labels on giant billboard adverts for cigarette brands, subverting their cheery sales messages with her own take on the illustrations. She followed with Themescapes, which she describes as an “exploration of consumerism and the way you’re induced into going in and spending money through the way the casinos look”.
It was while driving around for these projects that she found many of the sites for her latest work. “I’ve taken many trips across the country by car, and you see a lot of these marquee signs, which often run as a series of ads that are supposed to keep the driver from falling asleep and make sure you get out of your car and spend money at the next town. I first got the idea for Thoughts on Romance when I took a cross-country trip in 1996. I wanted to do something that worked from a car in a sequence that you’d be able to see but it wouldn’t be forever and it would only exist together at the same time for a short period of time. When people see them in public, I like the idea of them trying to work out what they are. They’re so used to be told what to do [through advertising], or stuff that’s trying to sell them something. So you don’t know whether they’re ads, or whether they’re art, and perhaps people pay a different kind of attention.”
The themes that link these projects together is her fascination with how capitalist society “turns the desire for romance into a product”, and how we’re “seduced by the spectacle of advertising”. “I’m interested in idealism being shaped by this idea of glamour, and the presumption that we’re entitled to be glamorous,” she says. “It’s not enough just to live your life, we all want to be famous, we all have to put ourselves out on Facebook every five seconds. So I’m also deliberately making bizarrely personal statements in the roadside work in order to draw attention to that – they’re meant to be deliberately silly and personal, with a point.”
How these concerns will play out in her next project is an intriguing prospect. She was recently given a Fulbright Scholarship to make work in Russia for six months. She is investigating the growing casino industry in cities in the far south and east of the country, as well as in Kaliningrad, following its banishment from Moscow. But she’ll also be focusing on advertising media once again, photographing “the relatively new hyper consumer culture there”, looking at how it’s working out after so many years of propaganda advertising. “In the West we’re used to being bombarded with consumer messages of what we should aspire to, but they haven’t had that for so long. They had [propaganda advertising] under the Soviet regime, but it was entirely different. Or was it really that different?”
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