Imperial Deluxe


Imperial Deluxe

By Kara Q. Smith August 11, 2015

Centuries ago, the definition of the word sign was expanded beyond that of “signal” or “gesture,” related to expressions and language, to include an object placed outside of a business (e.g., shops, inns) to identify and set a place apart from those around it. Zip ahead in time to 1950s Los Angeles, and this concept was taken to its extreme (e.g., an ice-cream shop sign that is physically shaped and painted to resemble an ice-cream cone). But think about business parks, and such whimsy does not come to mind. Rather, one imagines empty winding roads weaving around perfectly manicured and untouched grass, perhaps the occasional forlorn fountain, parking lots filled with cars, and nondescript buildings accentuated by a slab of concrete near the front bearing a cryptic company name: “ASUS,” “Symantec,” “UGS Corp.” Such names mean nothing unless one is intimately familiar with the world of corporate technology, and thus signs within the business complex give nothing away to an unknowing viewer.

Emma Spertus. Imperial Deluxe, 2015; installation view, City Limits, Oakland. Courtesy of the Artist and City Limits, Oakland. 

These under-designed recondite vestiges of business, both their physical and conceptual incarnations, are the inspiration for Imperial Deluxe, Emma Spertus’s solo show at City Limits. Entering the gallery, one finds a collection of beautifully fabricated and assembled wood sculptures, each emblazoned with perfectly painted verbiage like “G Technology” and “Areca.” Brightly colored and uniquely shaped, Spertus’s “signs” appear much more inspired than what one would actually find in the suburbs, embodying a feeling of effortless California cool: rendered in crisp lines, they are elegant yet eccentric, both tasteful and abstract (Helen Lundeberg’s early paintings come to mind).

Dulce Systems (2015) is a stark-white flattened box-like form, designed in such a way that it appears almost three-dimensional and perched on top of a pole with a curved top. The lettering, while perfectly laser cut, awkwardly varies between words, with degrees of relief and counter-relief treatments differing between the top and bottom lines. It’s a strange quirk to notice, though it causes the letters to become less important, part of the object’s overall design rather than carriers of specific semantic meaning. The concept of the words becomes more significant than the words—because what does “ASUS” actually describe, anyway?

Emma Spertus. Imperial Deluxe, 2015; installation view, City Limits, Oakland. Courtesy of the Artist and City Limits, Oakland. 

Spertus’s conceptual work tends to explore the area that exists between the fabricated and the routine. She often employs illusion as a tool to accomplish her conceptual aims; her work can at times seem like a sight gag: see her projects Space Blinds (2014) and Assembly (2013). The body of work in Imperial Deluxe is delightfully more precocious in its illusoriness than these two projects. Lectronic (2015), for example, coyly sits on the gallery floor, its scalloped geometric sides supporting the slanted rectangular panel on which the wording of its title vertically runs in glossy green vinyl. The wording’s association with the familiar term “electronic” and its form, which resembles an in-store display (think signage inside Target), conjure the illusion that this object exists in the world beyond the gallery space, though it is not a direct reference to either.

Beyond inserting these sculptures into the space of the gallery, Spertus has also added a physical architectural feature to City Limits, cutting out a rectangular recess in the gallery along the back wall and making it look like it has always existed there, electrical outlets and all. The piece, titled Niche (2015), could simply allow for more viewing space, better angles for which to see the five sculptures in the gallery. I quickly imagined its potential to be filled with laser printers and filing cabinets and thought, too, of all the abstract emptiness contained within corporate business buildings. What are they doing all day with all their copiers and filing cabinets?

Emma Spertus. Imperial Deluxe, 2015; installation view, City Limits, Oakland. Courtesy of the Artist and City Limits, Oakland. 

The landscape of altered words and spaces in this exhibition quietly and coolly reflects on what is so often incredibly unremarkable, no matter what is going on inside (an office could look like a Dilbert cartoon or, conversely, be a Disneyland-esque technology campus with a hip arcade and an Airstream burger shack). Playfully conflating the artistic with the rote, Imperial Deluxe levels the playing field: it’s all business, and though business may seem like a routine part of the American culture, it is ultimately an abstract concept. And one of the great things about the business of art is its ability to allow us to step back, or around, or away from (read: into a niche), or giggle at what can be perceived as our mundane existence.

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Emma Spertus: Imperial Deluxe is on view at City Limits, in


, through August 15, 2015.

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