This needling of authority also underpins the subversive nature of this exhibition—revealing and celebrating the humble laborer rather than the genius auteur, and questioning the very possibility of authorship. Norm doesn’t take credit for these works, which he’s physically produced, but Cranston has a more nuanced view. Asked if she and Baldessari intended for this show to be a hat tip to Norm, she says, unequivocally, yes. “There are lots of artisans behind the creation of art. It’s true of most art-making,” Cranston says. “John Baldessari has made that very clear. Films are very honest about that—there are awards for different roles.” (She also considers
, the director of a film about Norm that accompanies the exhibition, and Jamillah James, the ICA LA’s curator, among others, to be co-creators of “Brush for Hire.”)
The fact that Norm is an artist in his own right—and not just any artist, but a sign-painting artist—helps bolster his appeal as a collaborator among L.A. artists with strong roots in that tradition. “He completely understands art-making,” says Cranston. “It’s a common experience to work with fabricators who scratch their heads and say, ‘Well, why the hell would you want to do that?’” Not so with Norm, who once gigged as a sign painter in Detroit, painting billboard ads for liquor, cars, and cigarettes after attending art school in Toronto—and who has enormous admiration for the work of artists like Baldessari and Cranston.
He speaks a common language—wry, deadpan, and resolutely egoless—which can be seen in the one artwork in the exhibition for which he’s the sole author. Laich’s Never Die (2015) is a brightly colored, makeshift fast-food sign in the shape of a wobbly green speech bubble that’s filled with menu items from a roadside diner. Scrawled in black between listings for cheeseburgers and shakes (and their corresponding dollar signs) are two words, rendered vertically: “Never Die.” It’s the perfect distillation of a certain California ethos that undergirds “This Brush for Hire”—a droll streak of humor and sincerity in a city of flat signs and immortal ambitions.