The best signs aren't just aesthetically pleasing; they tell us something about the era in which they were created. Kansas City has its share of glorified signage (not counting Taco Bell, Burger King and KFC): the iconic Western Auto sign downtown, the Englewood Theatre's movie marquee, the art-deco Drum Room sign outside the President Hotel, the warm neon of the Peach Tree at 18th Street and Vine, the retro roadhouse imagery of Harry's Country Club in the River Market. They don't just mark places. They recall the food, the music or the people inside.
In the 29 works on display at the Dennis Morgan Gallery, Cottingham captures the reality and vague romance of past places and times. A photo-realist, Cottingham pulls individual letters out of their original context, allowing viewers to study and then discover the artistry of what is otherwise just an advertising tool. "F.W." (28 inches by 22-1/4 inches) reveals the initials of the Woolworth's retail chain to be gilded, classic and austere. Two awnings frame the letters, reminders of the environment in which the sign was originally placed. And, like much of Cottingham's work, it has an autumnal feel.
In "An American Alphabet Series," 10 distinctive letters adorn walls, making them appear to have been decorated by an artistic teacher obsessed with the shapes, colors and moods of 1930s, '40s and '50s storefronts, shops and theaters. It makes you wonder how such signs, now anachronisms, have survived. The Brooklyn-born Cottingham has been exploring that idea in his work for 30 years.
"I always felt they [the signs] represent a golden age not only of signage but of my time growing up," Cottingham says. "My father used to take me to Times Square as a kid. To me, they're sort of traces of American history."
Cottingham was also influenced by the years he spent working in advertising in the 1950s and '60s in New York and Los Angeles.
Using the letters of the alphabet is an inspired choice, for it's a familiar, finite template. His goal is to make each letter as different from the others as possible. Of the 10 letters in the series, R is perhaps most striking. Taken from a Ralph's Supermarket in Los Angeles, it's a series of big, red swooshes, beautiful and bold, accented by the sign's thin, curved lines above and below. A flagpole seems to rise above it, while a clear blue sky shines in the background. Somehow, Cottingham manages to make a blue sky seem like a remnant of the past.
The show is a balanced representation of Cottingham's fascination with the simple yet sophisticated individual alphabet letters and with grand marquees. The first lithograph he ever created is here, 1972's "ORPH," from the Orpheum theatre in Los Angeles. Other work, such as "Roxy," is as current as 2000. It's easy to admire the epic quality of "Roxy," in which Cottingham's unique perspective permits a view not afforded those on the street, close-up and at an odd angle. Similarly imposing is "Art," perhaps his best-known work.
"Bud," detailing a Budweiser sign in a neighborhood bar, is a literal rendering of an iconic arrangement: a window, a blue curtain and neon. The block glass surrounding the window reflects the light of a setting sun, and the mood is cool, quiet and pensive. It recalls hundreds of similar cozy windows in small towns and large cities all across America.
Cottingham's work is a combination of suggestion and instruction. It reminds us of the downtowns we inhabit or pass on our way to somewhere else. Advertising a movie, a family drugstore or a supermarket, the images linger long after the last bulb has burned out.
Robert Cottingham, through July 1 at the Dennis Morgan Gallery, 2011 Tracy, 816-842-8755.