Local artist George Horner is more than happy to move our chat to the bar when we find the coffee shop too loud and bustling at 3pm. He lives in the same brownstone that he and his wife bought in 1991 (a decision he refers to as “the best [he] ever made”), which he decorates with custom-made action figures, a series of tiny Batman paintings in unexpected and sometimes compromising positions, and various pieces of contemporary art and found pieces. He’s humble and gregarious, keen to make a raunchy or off-color joke, better still if it’s self-deprecating. It is hardly surprising to find that he is the man behind the posters on Union Street.
You know the ones: the rotating collection of text signs with neon-hued backgrounds, displayed in a front window between 4th and 5th Avenues. Their messages are memorable at times for their impropriety, other times for their insight, and chances are you or someone you know has stopped to snap a photo of at least one. We certainly have.
“If it’s not funny or not about sex then it ain’t sh*t,” George says, just as much an explanation as an artist’s statement.
George is certainly an artist who has been testing the boundaries of the controversial and the lowbrow since his early days in San Antonio, Texas. In 1976, he and two friends responded to the bigger galleries’ disregard for new and innovative work by opening their own exhibition space, calling it, tongue-in-cheek, the San Antonio Museum of Modern Art. (Just this past year, the San Antonio Museum of Art ran an exhibition dedicated to the artists who began in that space.)
He studied art at the University of Chicago for his master’s degree, after which he had a show at the Nancy Lurie Gallery featuring paintings done on wide stretches of Silly Putty — often of “naughty” caricature s– and the earliest incarnations of the posters we see today. He moved to the Lower East Side in 1984, then Park Slope in 1991, and has been an administrator at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery for over 20 years.
The signs began back in Chicago, aesthetically inspired by handset letterpress posters for blues clubs which George would find hanging around the city in the late 1970s. Thinking that the signs were an artform in themselves, he contacted the company responsible — Tribune Showprint Company in Indiana — and decided to create his own. He works with the same company to this day; “I appreciate continuity,” he says.
Each sign carries a bit of George’s past, whether pulled from overheard quotes or direct dialogue from personal conversations. There’s “I always wanted a watch for Christmas,” a quote from his mother (“She was a very, very funny woman,” he says) in response to a story about Andy Warhol’s voyeurism. There’s a play on a recurring phrase of his grandmother’s, “Too soon oldt und too late smart.” There are a series of somber pieces (“Welcome to the dark ages,” “The Love Bug,” and “Purple People Eater”) in response to the AIDS epidemic in the late ’80s and early ’90s within the art world specifically, which counted some of George’s friends as its victims.
He collects these bits of phrase and inspirations haphazardly in a black notebook, labeled “Green” on the front and “Purple” on the back, though when I ask the meaning of the colors he laughs and says, “You know, I forgot!”
One of his most popular posters also happens to be connected to one of his most painful memories. When George moved to Chicago, he left years’ worth of work — paintings, huge neon installations — in his parents’ house. He returned years later to pick it up, only to find that his brother Brown had thrown it all away. When he confronted Brown, he responded with a laugh, saying, “I gave you a retrospective at the city dump.”
George turned the phrase into both a poster and a neon sign, the latter of which is actually done in Brown’s handwriting.
(When the brothers finally reconciled, Brown sent George off with another zinger, “Saw some trash on a street corner and thought of you,” which also became a sign.)
George isn’t blind to the humor in it, though he mourned that original loss for years. He laughs while telling the story.
“It’s like someone falling on the street,” he says. “Terrible if it happens to me, but if it happens to you? Hilarious.”
He refers to the transformation of memory into art as cathartic.
“Most of the work deals with personal experiences that can be thought of as tragic,” he says, “but like Woody Allen says, tragedy plus time equals comedy. Humor is a way to confront the un-confrontable and a way to make the uncomfortable comfortable.”
Sometimes people will knock on the door hoping to buy a print, or — when “Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink” is in the window — wondering when the bar opens. Once, George woke to find “I hate you!” written in chalk on the sidewalk in front of his door. (The sign at the time? “You look like you smell like pee.”) Very often, he and his wife, abstract painter Michele Hemsoth, will see camera flashes through the window throughout the evening. Love it or hate it, his work gets a reaction.
“I don’t care that much for art that is too heavy,” he says. “I try to keep my stuff, especially the posters, humorous but edgy. I love word play and the things that can come from that activity. One of my posters reads, ‘Enlighten Up.’ That pretty much says it all.”