It was a Wednesday and I was cruising Facebook for a hit of art. Past a few newborns, memes, and angry comments, there it was: a traffic cone, almost spinning in all its fluorescence, elevated to the level of high art. My friend, artist Erik Sanner’s feed had delivered — a tantalized group making merry like a couple of Shakespearean witches, paint pouring, cooing over its transformation. And I…I was excited; mesmerized.
I left my apartment minutes later to stumble upon a giant archaeological dig by Con Edison on our sidewalk, and there were cones. They popped against the rubble like a good abstract. As my superintendent grumbled that we would pay for the replacement of the pavement, I nodded, gawking in my new cone universe. Then, a car with a cone attached to its roof drove by and stopped — car with a cone on top. Such shapes, such form, such wow!
In the days to come, I’d see a cold, lonely cone by Central Park’s Sheep’s Meadow, and a sad cone with two sporting stripes tipped over against a gray air grate in Journal Square’s Path train station — a masterpiece of contrasting forms and color.
I hopped to Erik’s actual page from my phone, and discovered a wealth of images and videos. I noticed Erik even gives “Traffic Cone Viewing Tours” here in the City, this year working with the (un)SCENE Art Show. People post great traffic cone sightings to his page, and they are stunning — cones topped with feather dusters and cones topped with paint brushes; chic white cones marking The Salvation Army. Even I personally posted one of that cone, riding high on its sedan around Madison Avenue.
Erik recently won second prize at the juried exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York for his installation “Point and Line to Cone” (2015), where the game in the piece makes the declaration, “Traffic Cones Are Almost Art.”
What had Erik done to me? We had to talk. After all, Erik embodies ArtBeat’s belief that in New York, art is everywhere, and art is for everyone. So I called him and it just got more interesting. The visual artist — living and working in Harlem — had a lot to share:
“Traffic cones are almost art because their main function is to be looked at. Once you enter the state of mind that they are art — if you look at them that way — you start to discover they have unique qualities and I can analyze them.
You don’t have go to an art gallery or a museum — you can be anywhere — the whole world becomes a free public art gallery.”
What is New York’s role in this?
“There is so much construction in New York, the more construction the better. SoHo has some great ones, nailed down. I can say any neighborhood you’ll find great traffic cones in NYC.”
Is there a best neighborhood?
“I like Hell’s Kitchen a lot — and the Lincoln Tunnel. Manhattan has a high concentration of cones and I don’t think traffic cones serve their purpose any more because people just drive over them. In Manhattan you need a big wooden barricade. What you have in New York is a lot of cones, which are just being left over and they are not actually doing anything, they are really just there to be looked at.”
Erik leads traffic cone viewing tours to open up the world of cone aesthetics. He says once people go on a tour, they never look at traffic cones the same way again. There are other well-known artists approaching cones in a new way — including Dennis Oppenheim, Banksy, and Rob Pruitt — as well as some under-represented heavyweight cone artists, like Peter Emerick, that are widely respected in the cone art community which I’m told exists.
Erik, who has also exhibited at the MLB Fan Cave, Tria Gallery, and the Courtald Institute in London, will meet groups after having scouted the neighborhood to see if there are any exceptional cones in the area.
Erik explains the five qualities of traffic cone aesthetics:
“First, what kind of cone it is. I’ve seen white, green, blue, black, red; there’s a lot of variety
The second thing I look at is where is it. It’s not in the road – somewhere strange.
…the third thing is what has happened to it. Every cone is completely unique. People cut them, there are scratches on them. It’s really interesting to see the wear and tear on a cone.
I look at their relation to other cones – in relationship of the cones to each other.
The last thing I look at is the relation to the viewer. You can see, but you can’t approach. I have seen a cone in a tree. It could be behind a fence somewhere you couldn’t get to.”
Art is everywhere, particularly in the every day traffic cones that dot our world as something to be looked at, but not necessarily obeyed.
I will never look at cones the same.