At Large  February 2, 2023  Megan D Robinson

Steve Porter Explores Signatures as Portraits with Signed99 Project

Courtesy the artist

Portrait of Steve Porter

British artist Steve Porter has an intriguing portrait project: Signed99 explores signatures as abstract forms, using a monochromatic palette within a variegated, colored internal frame. The swoops and whorls of each signature express a fascinating variety of distinct visual personalities. Porter is offering 99 signature portraits for sale, and the portrait prices go up exponentially, so the act of buying a portrait is auction-esque. Most clients use their own signature or commission a gift, but about a third of the commissions are “neutral signatures” that Porter creates. 

Ahead of the London exhibition that is in the works for May, Art & Object spoke with Steve Porter about the project and his artwork.

courtesy Steve Porter

Work 7 from the Signed99 series

 

Megan D. Robinson (A&O): What inspired you to start your Signed99 project?

Steve Porter (SP): The original seed idea began back in 1991 while visiting Brighton.

Intrigued by an arcade machine on one of the piers claiming to read someone’s character from their signature, I signed my name and fed the slip in… The machine printed out a couple of paragraphs – which were quite accurate about me – even the less complimentary bits!

During the 2010’s, I went through old sketchbooks seeking out ideas that had been recorded but never carried out... Making a large signature “portrait” was one of these.

So I made about three, as an experiment. It worked best to have the signature doubled, which gave the overall shape an aesthetic balance. 

It was fun to see something usually handwriting-sized, blown up and massive. Like I was a celebrity or something. I am not and have never had any desire to be a celebrity. But it gave me a little thrill―to see my name up there on the wall―in whites, rather than lights!

Gradually the idea began to settle that other people might enjoy this feeling and want their own signature displayed in a way, as a portrait or celebration.

And so Signed99 was born.

There is also a humorous “Duchampian” aspect, insofar as it uses “ready-mades.” Marcel Duchamp employed existing objects―famously a urinal―for his work. I think of the signature as a kind of “readymade,” where it is recontextualized into art. As well as being a logo-ist take on traditional portraiture.

courtesy the artist

Steve Porter with a work from Signed99

A&O: What's behind the numerical choice for 99 signatures? 

SP: The paintings are time-consuming―not because of the signatures themselves―but because I add multiple layers of textured white around the signature script to create the right “background” or surface, so there is “time” within the picture. It alters during different lighting situations, moving and changing around something essentially static―the signature.

But this made it impossible to create many paintings, so I started thinking about making numbered limited edition print runs of around a hundred… In the end “Signed” rhymed with “99,”, which was around 100… 

A&O: Please, could you tell me about your process?

SP: People can upload their signatures from the website. Others send it by email. Some have sent me a hardcopy by post.

I print them out twice, use a lightbox for positioning, so they work in tandem, then project the image onto a canvas and pencil it in, before painting it in black. The doubling creates an interesting central negative space.

I do the colored edges in layers, then the swirls of white textured layers in between. The colored edges act as a frame, representing the choices we make―our experiences. 

I use a deep-edge stretched canvas, so I can put the Signed99 logo “tags,”  along with the number of the piece, on the outside. Using a logo plays into Signed99’s commentary on the culture of branding, individualism, and logos. It also clearly demonstrates where this painting is within Signed99 as a whole. 

The portraits all have an overall recognizable look; regardless of the number or the signature details, there is a commonality―it stands out with an instantly clear voice. I was thinking about Mondrian and his jazzy grids.

courtesy Steve Porter

Work 11 from the Signed99 series

A&O: Are people buying them more as family heirlooms or as art pieces?

SP: Signed99 is a multi-faceted venture. A portrait may be a family heirloom or a storage point for memories. Eventually, something to remember people by. But it can equally be an artwork that comments upon the now.

A signature is just a shape, in the end. The ones that work best are the ones with unique characteristic shapes or something unusual about them. Variety is the key, as a reflection upon the whole human character…

A&O: Can you explain how and why you came up with the tiered auction-esque price scale? 

SP: I wanted them to be available for everyone, but for the venture to still be lucrative. Part of my motivation is to generate the means to look after my family. There is no shame in this. So I came up with the idea of the sliding scale price structure going from £1 to £1,000,000.

As well as solving the question of how to price, it also makes quite a statement about the boldness and audacity of the venture. When I told people what I was doing price-wise, they paid attention. It has a grabby appeal―selling the same thing from such a diverse range of prices. Some people said: you can’t do that! Which only confirmed that it was a good idea. Deep in my heart, I know some people would be able to pay more. Signed99 provides an opportunity to do this.

Other than the numbers being different (01-99) and the signatures being unique to each commission, the paintings are all created with the same care and attention. Because I am courteous and considerate in my dealings with everyone, I don’t need to treat anybody differently, whether they are spending £1 or £1,000,000.

For more information visit https://www.signed99.com/

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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