Sign, sign, everywhere a sign: Ben Lamb’s art takes a turn

The artist puts his industrial design degree to use in a new exhibit, ‘Go Away,’ which will remain on display at St. James Tavern through the end of February.
Work on display in "Go Away" by Ben Lamb
Work on display in "Go Away" by Ben LambCourtesy the artist

A year or two back, Ben Lamb tabled at an art fair in Grove City, Ohio, where he was met with what he politely termed “disinterest.” 

“I mean, I was just not connecting with people,” Lamb said in early February at St. James Tavern in Italian Village, where his current exhibit, “Go Away,” will remain on display through the end of the month. “I was bringing in a lot of liberal, super left-wing stuff. And, you know, it’s just a different kind of mentality, because in a gallery you’re all about, ‘Look at me. Look at my unique perspective.’ But when you set up in Grove City, or in Obetz, or in Delaware, it’s great to have that concept, and it’s great to be a big, wild, crazy, individual artist. But then you paid $400 to sit there, and it starts to be like, ‘I’d really like to sell something to these people.’”

Lamb quickly realized that while a massive anti-Trump piece might play in a gallery space such as the late Vanderelli Room, it doubled as kryptonite when lugged to art fairs, impressively earning the ire of both conservative and liberal patrons, who might agree with the subtext of the work but scoffed at the idea of displaying any image of the former Republican president in their homes. 

As a means of finding compromise, Lamb started to create site-specific works centered on eye-catching signs, including markers advertising Grove City Bowling and Ernie’s Carry Out – both located in Grove City, a town Lamb considered “the big city” while growing up just south in Pickaway County. “And it’s terrible, but my mindset was that the people of Grove City can’t take a joke, so I’m going to do everything straight, and I’m not going to make fun of anything,” Lamb said. “I’m just going to say, ‘I love your signs. I love the whole Grove City thing.’”

But the process also unlocked something within the artist, allowing him to tap into his degree in industrial design, in addition to a long-held love for vintage signage, which he previously explored in creating a painting based on the iconic Clintonville Tee Jaye’s sign in the days after someone rearranged the letters to read “Fuck You Lintonville 29 Years.”

Quickly, he began to incorporate his absurdist humor into the pieces, toying with the trust we put into industrial signage, and the idea that these roadside markers could be interlaced with text meant to communicate directly with a person. “Almost like a sentient, stalker-type sign,” Lamb said. “I tried to picture a world in which everything is trying to communicate with you personally.”

A second turning point arrived some months earlier, when Lamb was in the midst of a period when his interests centered on creating artworks of celebrities in cars, a number of whom met their demise while riding in an automobile, including actor James Dean, President John F. Kennedy and Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley, who died when a car piloted by an intoxicated Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil crashed with another vehicle. The pieces, each cut from wood on a bandsaw and then carefully hand-painted, were created in tribute, but Lamb couldn’t control the response when his piece commemorating Razzle went semi-viral in online glam metal circles shortly after he posted it to his artist page on Etsy.

“We were out on tour, and I was literally putting gas in the van when I started getting all of these messages through Etsy,” said Lamb, a bass guitarist who has played with Lydia Loveless and the X-Rated Cowboys, among others. “I really respected Razzle and Hanoi Rocks, and in my mind, it was a tribute to him. Well, these people did not feel that way at all. And they were like, ‘You’re a monster! You’re just trying to make money off of his death!’”

In that moment, Lamb also received separate messages from both of Razzle’s parents. “One of them was pissed and the other said, ‘Please tell me you haven’t done this,’” he said. Rather than reply, Lamb simply took the artwork down, not wanting to compound the pain felt by family members or fans of the musician. “There's all kinds of art you can make, and there’s confrontational art, like ‘Piss Christ,’ and I realized that’s not what I want to make,” he said. “I want to make art that can make people laugh, and it should always be punching up, not down.”

As such, the bulk of the works on display in “Go Away” are injected with a degree of whimsy, such as a recreation of the sign that once stood outside of the former concert venue Alrosa Villa, which included the text “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow” and was recently purchased by a relative of Rick Cautela, the owner of the late Columbus metal club. A second piece depicts the now-shuttered Sunbubble on Henderson Road and High Street, which the artist said once rented rooms outfitted with hot tubs by the hour.

“But there’s also a pretty famous commercial on YouTube where they market it as a great place to bring the family,” Lamb said, and laughed. “And I envision [creating] some larger piece that has some poor family who just brought their kids up there in a minivan.” As a precursor to this larger, more conceptual work, Lamb created the Sunbubble sign, which also reads, “Closed For Staph Meeting.”

“This is probably the closest I’ve gotten to using my degree in design,” said the artist, who still doesn’t know if this sign series is a temporary detour or something with more staying power. “And I’m getting to do it on my own terms. I mean, I think I’m pretty creative, but I’m also a terrible employee. And as a self-employed guy who is both boss and employee, I’m a shitty boss and probably a worse employee, and those two are always duking it out. Horrible wages, terrible hours and these ridiculous concepts that we’re trying to live off of. … I don’t know if this is considered fine art. It’s just some weirdo with a bandsaw. But it’s an interesting place to be, for sure, and I’m finding my way.”

He just needs to keep following the signs.

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