Bob Seng’s collages at John Molloy remake and reimagine the iconic EXIT sign. The artist says that he has chosen these ubiquitous signs for their attitude, a “go out” directive to an alternate space and time, and for their combative red and black elements. Initially he approached these signs as if they were archaeological excavations, selectively removing layers of the red and black paint to reveal what he imagined as “lost” civilizations buried underneath, “possibly a harbinger of our own in future time.”
Can you tell us more about the body of work in this show?
This current body of work at John Molloy differs in its process from my previous work, but not in intention—Here my method is to cut apart the red and black elements and treat them like mosaic tiles or brushstrokes. The cuts resemble drawing lines that are taped back together into a patchwork quilt-like panels which fold and cut several times on different axes, releasing new shapes into further play.
I come from the Pacific Northwest, where mountains still thrust, the sea floor drops, fires race and volcanoes blow. I served (not voluntarily) in the military in Vietnam. I put these signs through similar cycles of rupture, layering and upheaval. The process mimics geology enough to result in landscapes: scorched suburbs, overheated oceans, pitching swells, and precarious escape routes. We find ourselves in a transitional state between safety and danger (the traditional role of EXIT signs), utility and beauty, representation and annihilation.
Using cheap plastic signs to represent geological time presents a double contradiction. The material is flimsy, the inks somewhat ephemeral, but at the molecular and memory levels, are also eternal. Beyond the land references, I have gotten to a point in the studio, where I feel the physical effects of Red and Black, even before I can grasp their extended stories.
But even after you’ve read their stories, made up your own, or just feeling the Red and Black, these are always still EXITing signs.
All photo courtesy of Bob Seng
About the artist: Bob Seng was born in Seattle, lived up and down the West Coast, and served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. He earned degrees in painting from the University of Washington and Central Washington University on the GI Bill. Moving to New York in 1986, he augmented his early career with jobs at Artforum, the Guggenheim Museum, and teaching at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
Impelled by recurring wars, Seng transited through the contested emblem of the American flag into sculptural territory in the early 1990’s. These assemblages appeared in multiple installations at Exit Art, SculptureCenter and Creative Time’s 42nd St Art Project. He also collaborated with Lisa Hein on site specific projects for Socrates Sculpture Park, Georgetown Glow, and Seattle Center’s Next50, among many others.
Since 1997 Seng has carved, scraped, and collaged over 900 EXIT sign drawings. These have appeared recently in solo exhibitions at StART Art Fair in Seoul, Korea (2022) and Long Island University, Brooklyn (2020). Other exhibitions include Grand Flag, Pierogi, Centotto (Brooklyn), and Manhattan’s Project Artspace, ChaShaMa in the LES, and ODETTA galleries.
Bob Seng: Cutting Corners at John Molloy Gallery is on view thru June 3, 2023. John Molloy Gallery, 49 East 78th Street. 2-B. Hours: Thursday-Saturday 12-5