Steve Lambert builds ideas. For instance, in the hand-built, retro signage he created for his second solo L.A. show, "It's Time to Fight and It's Time to Stop Fighting" at Charlie James Gallery, the outgoing instigator with a wiry beard has found a new way to talk about economics.
Born in Los Angeles, the son of a former Dominican nun and former Franciscan monk, Lambert translates his parents' values of dedication, study and service to others into his art.
"Every Christmas or birthday, you got tools and art supplies," Lambert says of his upbringing. "I got a real toolbox with a hammer in it when I was 4 or 5."
He was a high school dropout who later completed two advanced degrees, one as a vintage Vespa–riding upstart student at the San Francisco Art Institute. There he tested ideas like the Budget Art Gallery, a traveling art exhibit sometimes staged in abandoned city spaces or on the back of a truck. The art that didn't sell that day would be left behind.
And who changed all of the San Francisco Civic Center neighborhood's "Bush" street signs to "Puppet" in 2000? We'll never tell.
Lambert gained international attention with a 2008 collaborative prank with the Yes Men, an exquisite, fake edition of The New York Times released on July 4, with the headline "Iraq War Ends" — like a utopian version of The Onion. They distributed 1.2 million copies, despite the problems they had trying to find someone to agree to print it.
Over the years Lambert also has founded the Center for Artistic Activism (a website for those hoping to make effective political statements), the Anti-Advertising Agency (which tests the boundaries between public space and art), Add-Art (a Firefox add-on that replaces online ads with curated art images) and SelfControl (an OS X app that blocks grownups from distracting websites so they can get work done). He has been a fellow at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center and collaborated on projects with the Graffiti Research Lab and Greenpeace.
Lambert currently is an assistant professor in the new-media department at SUNY Purchase, but what saves him from being a typical academic is his sharp sense of humor and lack of pretense.
While the show at Chinatown's Charlie James Gallery, running through Oct. 20, includes five new sign sculptures and some accompanying prints, the featured piece of the show is Capitalism Works for Me True/False, a behemoth, 9-by-20-foot scoreboard-like sign that tallies the votes of passersby who press flashing "true" (green) or "false" (red) buttons on a nearby podium.
Since its debut at the 2012 deCordova Biennial in Lincoln, Mass., it has toured financial districts in four cities — Cleveland, Boston, San Diego and Santa Fe — and won't stop anytime soon.
A replica is being built in Holland for European audiences.
The piece's font, hand-drawn by Lambert, is inspired by the "Wash" sign on the art deco façade of the Perfection Fluff and Fold laundrette here in Los Angeles, at La Brea Avenue and South Orange Drive. (You can see it in the way Lambert's big "m" resembles the sign's "w.")
The work is accompanied by a moving video of testimonials about why people voted how they did. One enthusiastic young man missing a tooth votes "true" and, by the end of his 45-second comment, convinces himself and his audience that, actually, capitalism, for him, really hasn't worked well.
In early 2013, Lambert will publish a catalog of the sign's travels, with a foreword by comedian Paul F. Tompkins.
Lambert funded the capitalism sign project through Kickstarter, raising almost $17,000 in a couple of weeks, surpassing his originally modest goal of $9,500.
Flavorwire/Flavorpill chose "Make Capitalism Work for Me" as one of the "Best Art Projects in the History of Kickstarter," alongside photographer Spencer Tunick's Naked Sea in Israel and Swoon's Musical House project in New Orleans.
While this counts as a monumental crowdsourcing success, the artist still hasn't come to terms with the "asking working people for money" part of the project. He does not believe that Kickstarter should replace the National Endowment for the Arts, as that would give government more excuses to cut public money for art.
In a recent interview with University of California Institute for Research in the Arts, a state university think tank, Lambert makes his point. "A healthy culture has opportunities for artists from a variety of sources: private support, foundations, the commercial art world and public funding," he says. "None of these pieces are new, but the shift in balance is.
"The defunding of arts programs at this level is new, and the shift from public to private funding is new. We're moving out of balance. For some perspective, imagine if we crowdfunded wars."
Also included in the "It's Time to Fight" show is a beautifully simple "100%" electric sign where one bulb will light when one person is standing in front of it, and all of them will flash when it's a crowd. Carefully built with specially sourced carnival bulbs and a crudely fashioned sensor/control board, it is another of Lambert's clever acknowledgements of the Occupy movement and the 99 percent.
Earlier this year, Lambert and a fellow artist went to the Boston Occupy camp and redid the protest signs so they'd be more fun to look at.
His thinking about class has led him to be concerned about who buys his artwork. "I'm starting to think even more about where these pieces will end up, instead of just building them because they're something that I want to see," Lambert muses.
"A piece I did a while ago, a neon sign that said 'Cash Rewards,' was bought by a hedge fund manager in Manhattan," he continues. "I delivered it to him thinking that all his rich friends are going to see it and think it's funny, and that's not really what I meant. So now I'm trying to make art with other people in mind."
STEVE LAMBERT: IT'S TIME TO FIGHT AND IT'S TIME TO STOP FIGHTING | Charlie James Gallery | 975 Chung King Road, Chinatown | (213) 687-0844 | cjamesgallery.com | Through Oct. 20