Bihl Haus Arts features Ben Ortiz' Signs of Their Times: Totemic Marquees and Neons of San Anto

In the Tricentennial exhibition, “Signs of Their Times: Totemic Marquees and Neons of San Anto,” photorealist painter Ben Ortiz celebrates iconic signs of San Antonio. He centers most of his images on 3-by-2-foot vertical canvases, an exception is the horizontal “Tip Top Café,” which visually links all 13 signs as revered totems.

These signs, normally noticed from the window of a passing car at night, their brilliant neon, flashing lights and impressive size designed to momentarily mesmerize the viewer, have been re-contextualized by the artist. They appear at the viewer’s eyelevel, flush with the plane of the canvas.

“I grew up in the Jefferson area in the 1970s and ‘80s and remember that I was profoundly impressed by the artform expressed in signs around me,” Ortiz said. “Now, a lot of them are getting torn down or in disrepair. They’re going away. (This exhibition) includes a window into an art form that is disappearing from society.”

The exhibition opens with a reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, April 13 at Bihl Haus Arts, 2803 Fredericksburg Road. It continues through May 19. The reception includes poolside music by The Michael Waid Trio, food and drinks.

Kellen McIntyre, curator and executive director of Bihl Haus Arts, notes that the signs become more accessible, more intimate, especially those transformed by the artist’s personal concerns expressed in enigmatic quotations from Jung, Hegel and others, carefully lettered on marquees. Rather than being set against the dark night, they inhabit an atmospheric cerulean blue sky that begs closer scrutiny, their age emphasized in rust, broken bulbs, missing letters, a nod to a past long forgotten or perhaps never known.

“Signs often become so important to a community that they are valued long after their role as commercial markers has ceased,” writes Michael J. Auer, in a Preservation Brief for the National Park Service (1991). “They become landmarks, loved because they have been visible at certain street corners—or from many vantage points across the city—for a long time. Such signs are valued for their familiarity, their beauty, their humor, their size. . . [They] transcend their conventional role as vehicles of information, as identifiers of something else. When signs reach this stage, they accumulate rich layers of meaning. They no longer merely advertise but are valued in and of themselves. They become icons.”

Ortiz was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1967, but moved with his family to San Antonio the following year. His father’s job took the household to Monterrey, Mexico and Leon, Guanajuato for several years but they remained firmly tied to San Antonio by his father’s market where Ben and his siblings spent a lot of their days when not at school. Ortiz graduated from high school in San Antonio and attended Texas A&M University, which offered him the opportunity to study abroad under painter Paolo Barruchieri at Castiglion Fiorentino, Tuscany. After graduating from A&M with a degree in design, Ortiz returned to Italy where he perfected his drawing skills, met his wife, Patrizia, and worked at the Italart School for two years.

He returned to the U.S. to serve in the Army. He settled in San Antonio in 1998 where he works as an artist, illustrator and designer and makes occasional trips to Italy with his wife and daughter.

Gallery hours are 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. For more info, call 210-383-9723 or visit