Cheap and sticky art

Stickers are low-cost works of art that are provocative, ubiquitous, and often humorous. The "Sticker Shock" show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 36th and Sansom, is intended as a broad overview of the artist sticker, as well as work made by artists who appropriate existing stickers.

The desire to be inclusive means a lot of "kids" got exhibited. Those who were late with their submissions or were just visiting the show were invited to participate anyway, although in a separate, smaller "sticker your own" gallery.

Many artists' stickers grow out of the tradition of graffiti art-created to be stuck in places where people are forced to encounter them. To paraphrase the artist Doug Anson, stickers can be used as guerrilla marketing tools by just about anyone with anything to say.

Advertising's evil twin

In their omnipresence, stickers both mimic and critique the image culture of advertising but many of them sell nothing and exist as idiosyncratic works of art that function outside the realm of profit. Artists' stickers represent an attempt to bring art out of galleries and into the streets-a form of grass roots public art.

Stickers compete with the visual culture of the contemporary city, which is largely privately owned by commercial interests. Shepard Fairey's Andre the Giant sticker campaign stems from a desire to counter this colonization of the visual public sphere. According to Fairey, "Stickers are the poor artists' way to combat corporate supremacy."

While Fairey sees his sticker art as a counterpoint to advertising imagery, Jim Winters professes no ideology with his stickers. Winters creates highly decorative and colorful sticker images that range in subject matter. Many are portraits. Inspired by Wacky Packages, cartoons and horror films, Winters represents pop culture icons, friends, beefcakes, drag queens and even show dogs, often appropriating images and text from old magazines, food packages, advertisements and medical textbooks.

Portable graffiti

Barry McGee's stickers incorporating forlorn urban marginals and inscribed with his tag "Twist," are smaller, transportable versions of work he also renders in spraypaint or with fatter markers on large scale surfaces. Stickers are an easy way for McGee to make his mark on urban space without the risk of painting more elaborate, time-consuming murals. Like McGee, Mike Lesage also uses stickers as the miniature surface for his tags and "throw-ups" (more elaborately drawn tags).

While the majority of the works in "Sticker Shock" are actual stickers, two projects take on more sculptural proportions. Forrest Myers and Aaron Rose/Phil Frost pay homage to popular culture by placing favorite stickers on that often decorated appliance - the refrigerator. Forty years of collecting automotive decals culminates in Myers' Hot Rod, a work that reveres the hot rod culture of 1960s Southern California. Similarly, Rose/Frost announce their cultural affiliations through a variety of stickers, including skateboard, clothing company and artists' stickers by Barry McGee, Shepard Fairey, Phil Frost, COST and Mike Lesage.

A familiar dilemma

A familiar dilemma pervades "Sticker Shock" - art created to be transgressive, or at least to function outside the art world's system of distribution, ends up on the walls of the museum. But amassing the work at the risk of taming and sanctifying it heightens the viewer's awareness of another kind of art and attunes people to pay attention to the surfaces of the city. While stickers may have been temporarily co-opted by the gallery, they are still alive and well on the streets where they will continue to pop up in unexpected places.

Alex Baker, M.A., is assistant curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art and curator of "Sticker Shock."

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Originally published on February 25, 1999