At Davis Gallery, Randall Reid transforms vintage signs

Texans have a fondness for highway art, that vintage of modern signs whose surface has just the right sprinkling of rust.

Metal advertisements for Mobile Oil and worn-out license plates grace the walls of honky tonks and chintzy steakhouses the state over. But they also adorn stairwells in the homes of collectors — a nostalgia that crosses county lines.

Artist Randall Reid, professor of art and design at Texas State University, has crossed more county lines than most, hunting down these signs.

He shows his art across the country, and everywhere he travels, he visits antique stores to see what he might find. His wife and brother are always on the look out.

“Tin cans, road signs, advertisement signs,” all of the above, Reid says.

Closer to home he hits Trade Days in Fredericksburg or Wimberley Days in Wimberley.

Round Top is a gold mine. “They have literally five miles of treasures for me to sift through,” Reid says from San Marcos.

But it’s what he does next that transforms these signs into art: He cuts them with a hacksaw and rearranges them into something completely new, but which at the same time feels very old.

This part, he’s learned over the years, is not something you should divulge at an antique fair.

“They’re not going to sell it to you,“ Reid says. “I don’t want this cut up, they’ll say.”

But Reid doesn’t call what he does destruction. Quite the opposite.

“You are saving it as an icon,” he says.”You are preserving it in some way.”

This signage, he says, “as it keeps changing hands, it eventually ends up in the trash can.”

Reid’s expansive new show at Davis Gallery is a collection of more than 600 pieces, beautifully re-arranged and repurposed, all framed in dark industrial steel, and smartly organized in asymmetrical groups.

The textured lines of Barnett Newman come to mind. Often there’s a patina of old age that lends weight to the image. They feel warm and broken in, like an old leather belt.

Reid’s work increasingly uses text; words from a sign that add a second dimension of complexity and makes it a little easier to trace a sign’s origins, though words are rarely left whole.

In one, you can make out “Petroleum Co.” and “Unit Lease.” Another sliced and rearranged a 1939 Vermont license plate into a square, its numbers chopped up and turned sideways.

Reid began his career making drawings. “I would take a drawing and bury it under layers of glue and matte,” he says. “I would treat it as a fossil dug up from the past.”

Then he discovered the signs, which have fossilization already built in. ”Just the weight of the piece, knowing that it’s framed in steel gives it a sense of permanence.”

The old signage was built to last; after the 1970s advertising became ephemeral. “It’s plastic,” Reid says. “They’re such a different style.”

“I like to cut through the steel with my hand,” he says. In the gallery there are marks of that work, things like metal shavings from his drill press. Reid estimates he cut 800 feet of steel with his hacksaw.

“I don’t plan anything out,” Reid says. His Texas State studio is brimming with materials to choose from: signs organized by color, piles of rulers and metal rakes whose tines add colors or elevation.

It’s difficult to find, but Reid also adds paint. “I paint out things that I don’t like in a sign,” he says. In one he might paint out a rusted section, in another he might try to match tarnished paint. All of this work is skillfully invisible.

Yet some signs in particular can make his work difficult.

“There are certain things that you just can’t cut up,” Reid admits. “I’m debating cutting up a battery sign that I found that has some beautiful oranges in it.”

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