Thomas McGovern

[Vital Signs exhibition catalog cover, Riverside Art Museum, 2008]

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Vital Signs, 2010

color photographs, Dimensions Variable

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“Vital Signs” is an ongoing documentary photography project about the hand-painted signs and murals throughout the Inland Empire region of Southern California. I have been making these pictures for the past five years and continue to find them beautiful and emblematic of the rich cultural heritage of this region. They represent the recent past, when hand painted signs and murals were an inexpensive way to advertise a business and decorate a building. As digital technology brings printing costs down and makes cheap vinyl signs affordable, these unique hand painted icons are quickly disappearing.The great Mexican muralist tradition has had an obvious influence on these paintings, but these signs also suggest the economics of a poor city where immigrants and established locals alike set up shop and try to provide for themselves and their communities. The melding of Mexican and Anglo cultures is apparent in many of these signs, which is a hallmark of the region. They also reflect a community that not only tolerates, but celebrates diversity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship. As neighborhoods develop and prosper, these signs are painted over and replaced with vinyl and backlit vacuum formed signage, homogenizing that which was culturally unique. It is becoming harder and harder to find these hand painted signs and murals, true testaments to artistic skill and an economy of means, as they are overtaken by cheap digital printing. They are mostly about local businesses and while a few of them are masterfully done, many are crude and some barely legible, simultaneously powerful emblems of our shared cultural heritage and personal expressions of the commercial and outsider artists who created them. Advertising is an age-old tradition and as these pictures attest, if all you have is a brush and some paint, you make the most of it.My project is about preserving the end of this great tradition and its often-humble creations through photography.

Artworks by Thomas McGovern

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