Gary Sweeney: Forty years of wit on display at Blue Star

The CAM opening party last Thursday had decent attendance, about the same as the usual previews at Blue Star the night before the First Friday mobs hit each month. Perhaps the crowds stayed away in dread of a repeat of last year's ceremonies when the ribbon cutting was interminably delayed. But all proceeded well, speeches were blessedly short, Miranda Fermin was crowned Miss CAM Antonio 2013, and in we went.

Dwarfing the assembled guests, the many paintings, prints, carved and sundry pieces in Gary Sweeney's 40-year retrospective make one of the most intoxicating shows I have seen at Blue Star since I arrived in town two years ago. Text everywhere, high and low, the show is an exhaustive, quirky compendium of signage. Themed like an errantly curated folklore museum, there are series about airplanes, surfing, a set made with rice and beans in mosaic, and many pieces made of scavenged letters from aged signs that fronted local businesses until Sweeney swapped out a spanking new handmade sign board to replace the crumbling letters. Sometimes, even with the owner's permission. But the work is not entirely logo-centric, or simple camp. Like a manic Barbara Kruger with a decidedly less urbane affectation and no obvious punch line, Sweeney utilizes imagery to great effect. Leaning against a wall, a huge, recent piece displays an ocean scene culled from a decades-old photograph, and protruding in skewed cutout, an enlarged illustration of a Soviet submarine from the heyday of the Cold War. Nearby, another photographic work depicting a 1950s sedan done in civic-booster style proclaims "Colorado The State That Keeps Nebraska from Running Into Utah!" Another theme, that.

Born in Southern California, Sweeney grew up on the beach, surfed, and still wears "the same haircut I had in fifth grade," he told the Current. An early interest in text was spurred by studies with conceptual artist John Baldesarri at U.C. Irvine, whose appropriation tactics Sweeney has gleefully employed with his own twists, layering messages like competing announcements broadcast simultaneously over a PA system.

Many of the references are personal — the abundant airplanes speak of the airlines, in which both Sweeney and his wife have long been employed; Colorado was for awhile their home and base; rice and beans is SA, of course, but an arresting photo essay informing the viewer of the local version of the "John Doe" tag in countries spanning the globe? Why am I laughing at photos of toe tags? Is nameless death funny? Well, I know my name, so I guess I'll be just fine. When I turn my head towards him, Sweeney smiles broadly.

Gary Sweeney: A Forty-Year Overview (1973-2013)

2-6pm Tue-Sat
2-8pm Thu
Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum
116 Blue Star
(210) 227-6960
Through May 11