Roadside Art: Signs of the Times

The arts administrator’s brightly hued work can be found at pop-up installations around the city

“Signs, signs, everywhere a sign, blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind” — or so goes the old tune.

But for Yellowknife artist Boris Atamanenko, the abundance of graphic imagery isn’t driving him mad; instead, it’s inspiring him to make some signs of his own.

You can see them posted around Yellowknife, occasionally bunched on street corners, where they are best viewed at night under the beam of headlights. Some are also for sale at Winnie’s Art Gallery in Enterprise, while others are for sale on his Facebook page.

“Graphic design is all around us in our daily life. The influences are in food packaging, highway signs, the t-shirts people wear,” he tells EDGE. “I thought, if I really want to say anything in an artistic way, then sign work is the way to bring a line across where I can really start to simplify a little bit.”

The printmaker and arts administrator began screen-printing original images on posters, shirts and other backdrops on the West Coast in the late ‘70s, but it wasn’t until he turned 55 in 2014, and had dredged up a badly damaged highway sign from his folks’ barn in rural B.C., that he decided to start reviving some of his favourite colours and designs from that era

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“I thought: life’s too short. It was time to reflect on some of those themes and images I was really keen about when I was going to become a famous artist sometime in my twenties, and just see if I couldn’t do something that would please myself.”

Using hand-cut stencils from the sticky, reflective sheeting used on road signs, Atamanenko transforms the language of road signs into his own minimalist messages about society and the North.

Calling them ‘Ephemera’, Atamanenko says his whimsical pieces are meant to signify the iconography and issues that bombard our everyday modern realities, while also finding a purpose for materials discarded by the city and territory.

Messages in line and colour

“What I’m really interested in, from a personal perspective, is… issues of the day and trying to consolidate a message or statement of some kind using line and colour,” he says. “So it’s not necessarily trying to be profound, but sort of catching things that may arise… Something cool that I could say, that could be a headline or a t-shirt tomorrow.”

Some of his signs display iconic NWT imagery, bears and caribou, or the Northern Lights over a houseboat; others delve a little deeper into contemporary issues, from industrial development and politics to simple imperatives like “rest.”

One such piece features a bumpy road sign, transformed into the mountainous setting of a Sahtu shale gas fracking rig, bearing the message ‘Unconventional NWT’ — a play on the controversial petroleum extraction method  and the NWT’s own tourism motto.

Another piece on federal Bill C-51 — the departed Harper government’s controversial anti-terrorism bill — features the word “securité” spelled backwards in a rear view mirror, as if being viewed by someone being watched or followed.

The appeal of signs, for Atamanenko, is that they can convey very simple messages that, with some creativity, can still be interpreted in a variety of ways.

“The icons that are used in highway signs are meant to catch attention and get across a lot of information in a concise way,” he says. “It can be almost anything of whimsy that takes my fancy at the time, and that’s really where it’s at for me; I’m not really on a mission to lay out a philosophical challenge to the viewer of the signs.”

Atamanenko applies the same basic undercurrent of impermanence to his exhibitions, preferring to display his art through “pop-ups,” where he props his signs up around town momentarily to add some flash and colour to the city.

With messages like “Maximum Culture” and “Construct an Exhibit” printed loudly for all to see, many of the pieces are not-so-subtle calls to artists everywhere to add their own work to the world.

“Any community from around the territory or around the world can really be improved or have added value by beautification of different kinds, and public art has a lot to do in this area,” Atamanenko said. “I hope people in every community in the territory can be able to afford the time to play creatively in any art form for themselves.”

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