MANKATO — Eleven words have rarely caused so much vexation:
This is not the image of a horse
Now it is
Stenciled on an otherwise nondescript wooden board above the 410 Project art gallery on Front Street, these 11 words were quite purposefully arranged by Curt Germundson, an art history instructor at Minnesota State University.
He completed the piece for a 26-year retrospective exhibit of his art at the 410 Project in October 2011. The sign has hung above the entrance to the gallery ever since, challenging the visually dependent masses to crack its artistic meaning.
Some succeed. Many do not. And those who live and work along Front Street have become used to frequent sidewalk nattering — and sometimes heated argument — about its intent.
Dana Sikkila, director of the 410 Project, said gallery organizers have continued to leave the sign up because it prompts such strong reactions from viewers.
“It’s definitely a mix,” Sikkila said. “Some people get angry because they don’t understand it. Some people think it’s really clever. ... It’s definitely something people notice.”
On the periphery, the sign is a continuation of Germundson’s interest and scholarship in the principles of Dadaism, a short-lived but influential early 20th-century art movement that rejected aesthetics in favor of more conceptual art that emphasized absurdity and meaninglessness.
But at its core, the sign underscores the ways in which language serves as a springboard to meaning. The mere sight of the word “horse” is enough to produce an image in the mind of any viewer — even when no image is present.
Germundson said the work is based on the bluntly literal painting of a pipe by Rene Magritte that includes the phrase “This is not a pipe” painted underneath. Germundson’s commentary is similar to Magritte’s, whose famous suggestion to those who argued that his painting was indeed a pipe was to try and stuff it with tobacco.
Magritte’s point was that his painting only represented a pipe. It wasn’t the thing itself.
Germundson carries the philosophy a step further by eliminating the image altogether, thereby highlighting the stored power that exists in language.
“The moment you read ‘horse,’ your mind sees a horse,” he said. “It’s impossible to read the word and not conjure an image.”
Such concepts form the underpinning for much of Germundson’s art.
An MSU instructor since 2001, he considers his first piece of art to be his senior yearbook photo for Patrick Henry High School in San Diego. Instead of the inspirational quotations and inside jokes offered by many of his classmates as photo captions, Germundson opted for a more practical caption: “In case of fire, do not use elevator. Use stairway exit.”
Germundson, however, insists he wasn’t being coy. He points out that not only does his caption serve a certain functional end (it is, after all, potentially lifesaving advice), but it also casts a critical eye on the triviality of the vast majority of similar yearbook utterances.
Germundson’s later work continued to draw on a similar process of adding and subtracting context to arrive at unexpected meaning.
In “Red Bread,” Germundson situates a half loaf of bread in front of a mirror. On one end of the loaf is a sign marked with an A; the backside of the sign is marked with a B. The result is a reflection of a full loaf of bread that forces viewers to travel through the mirror to get from point A to point B.
In another work, Germundson simply attaches pieces of metal and rock. But, he injects meaning into the otherwise meaningless forms with his title, “This has nothing to do with the Holocaust.” Suddenly, the forms are imbued with dark connotations and hitherto unfounded significance.
“This is the power of language,” he said. “It superimposes meaning.”
As for the horse sign, Germundson originally intended to exhibit the concept inside a small picture frame. But he had an epiphany while watching onlookers continually stop on the sidewalk to watch Sikkila complete an installation in the large window that overlooks Front Street from the front of the 410 Project.
Wanting to make the same connection with people who weren’t otherwise expecting to engage art, Germundson opted to stencil his message on a large wooden board. He chose a Western-styled font that would blend in with the 410 Project’s bar and tavern surroundings and wouldn’t immediately announce the sign as a piece of conceptual art.
Jake Downs, who works at Pagliagi’s Pizza directly across the street from the 410 Project, said Germundson has achieved his desired effect.
“Almost every time I work, someone asks about that sign,” he said. “Usually there are groups of people that are standing by the cash register when someone will notice it. Then they point it out to all the people who are with them and they all try and figure out what it means.”