In the 70s, John Fekner was ‘anonymously known’ for over three hundred environmental/conceptual works consisting of dates, words, and symbols spray painted throughout the five boroughs of New York. The “Warning Signs” project focused on pointing out hazardous conditions that dominated New York City and its environs in the 1970s. In the spring of 1977, Fekner created word-signs using hand cut cardboard stencils and spray paint. He began a relentless crusade concerned with social and environmental issues. Starting in the industrial streets of Queens and the East River bridges, and later on to the South Bronx in 1980, his messages were seen in areas that were desperately in need of construction, demolition or reconstruction. By labeling structures and emphasizing problems, the objective was to call attention to the accumulated squalor by urging city officials, agencies and local communities to be more responsible and take action.
His first projects, Growth Decay, Industrial Fossil, Urban Decay, Decay/Abandoned, Instant This Instant That, and The Remains of Industry were not intended to remain for a long period of time. They succeeded when the existing condition was removed or remedied. In the New York Times, John Russell wrote…John Fekner is an artist who works not only in New York but with New York. The city in its more disinherited aspects is the raw material with which he has been working ever since he got a studio space in P.S. 1 in Long Island City in 1976 and learned to regard the huge dilapidated building as ''an elderly person who has acutely perceived his experience of life.'' He went on to work outdoors in Queens and in the Bronx in ways that gave point and urgency to places long sunk in despair. With a word or two (''Decay'', for instance, or ''Broken Promises''), he brought an element of street theater into disaster areas. With a single stenciled phrase (''Wheels Over Indian Trails,'' for instance) he mingled present with past on the side of the Pulaski Bridge near the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. What in other hands might have been vandalism had a salutary effect. People in desolate parts of the city saw more, felt more, thought more and came out of their apathy.
Although Fekner’s artistic work has at times been extremely public, media-savvy and technological-driven, he has managed to keep a low profile, which allows him to keep his vision resolute.
As an artist, the concepts of memory, perception and transformation have remained an integral component of my creative explorations throughout my entire career. Combined with my love of poetry, I connected something that was extremely personal with a greater need to express and communicate directly in the outdoor environment.
It was at the time when I had a studio space at P.S. 1 from 1976-78 that my work took an ideology shift. I developed a philosophy of reducing the value of an art object to that of a shared visual experience for the public at large. The work evolved into a social aesthetic statement that attempted to interact, involve and connect with the urban populace across the five boroughs of New York.
The purpose was to create awareness about environmental issues that directly impacted the community in which the individual stencil was sited. I reconfigured Jasper Johns’s target motif to my own single word poetry. Depending on the chosen location, I would use text, symbols or icons within a site-specific outdoor installation. The work existed in its' own isolation in situ as a target. This allowed the viewer to focus in on the actual experience of being at that particular location; whether it was a highway overpass, a toxic dump or an abandoned lot.
My latest works include non-permanent paintings and online projects using the web as a social workspace for music and video collaborations. The content of the work centers on issues of humanistic concern, environmental problems, media control and a society driven by greed, consumption and instant gratification.
I believe that new material is new thinking for any artist regardless of their age or field of specialization. No matter what the individual discipline, it is to an artist’s advantage to be progressive and challenge oneself by taking risks and explore beyond familiar territory. By immersing oneself in uncertainty, artists face new challenges and may discover innovative solutions in unexpected ways.