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Translating Art Into Words and Words Into Art

By Steven Rosen · November 19th, 2008 · The Big Picture

As curator of education at Contemporary Arts Center, Scott Boberg cares deeply about the visual impact and meaning of words. One of his jobs is to write the informational wall text accompanying the art at the museum.

“How do you create opportunities for communication in contemporary art?” he asks. “When you write the wall panels, how do you find the right tone and pitch level? Many adult visitors are at a different level than the information often put on wall text. Most people come to art interested in its narrative, the story it tells, and secondarily how it’s made, and thirdly how it fits within a historical context. So I write panels trying to be cognizant of that fact.”

As an artist, Boberg — who came to Cincinnati three years ago for his job at CAC — is also interested in the impact of words and other message-laden symbols. His Sign Song is the current art show at Semantics Gallery (1107 Harrison Ave., Brighton). It is up through Nov. 29; hours are 7-10 p.m. Saturdays (get gallery and show details here).

Boberg, a Los Angeles native, studied poetry while at University of California at Berkeley. He worked as a museum educator in Santa Monica and Cheyenne, Wyo., and previously had art shows in those cities. In Cincinnati, he shared a 2007 show at Over-the-Rhine’s 1305 Gallery with Ted Lind, former educator curator at Cincinnati Art Museum.

At Semantics, Boberg looks at the meaning behind the signs and symbols of everyday life, as well as how everyday objects like mirrors, toasters, maps and CD cases can be given meaning through ever-so-slight alterations and additions. For instance, in one piece in the show, he has painted “I’ll see you in Helvetica” on a mirror. It reflects a message — about the nature of printing and, thus, language — as well as an image.

In another, “Beautiful, Sad, Smart, Unlucky Portrait,” he stacks on a shelf 13 CD covers — baritone (and lower) singers Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Tom Waits among them — to create (and poke fun at) a symbolic portrait of their gloomy, doomy imaginary owner.

But for the show’s centerpiece, “Hobo Signs (Nos. 1- 50),” Boberg painted signs that have an important, well-established historical meaning. These are replicas of the symbols hobos once painted on homes to inform others what to expect. A stick-figure cat, for instance, connotes a “kind lady.”

Using gouache and metallic acrylic paint on paper, he has made 50 signs from images he first saw on the Internet. Hobos, especially during the Great Depression, would ride the rails in search of work, going door to door in communities looking for help. (Given the current economic climate, they could be making a comeback.)

“The idea of this hidden system is really interesting to me,” he says. “The hobo signs were a system of communication for a specific group of people, men and women, who would basically hop trains and move to various parts the country for work. They had a set of symbols that they understood as they moved around.”

At Semantics, Boberg is bringing that system — the beauty and meaning of its symbols — back to life for others.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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