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.