Artist Virginia Overton Takes Us Inside the Domino Sugar Sign Transformation

The sculptor and installation artist has given a Brooklyn icon a new life.

An artist studio where a large industrial sculpture is being built
Overton’s rendering of the Domino Sugar sign in progress. Courtesy Virginia Overton

Earlier this month the celebrated artist Virginia Overton debuted Untitled (reverse virgule) (2024), a major new work at the Refinery at Domino, the former Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg Brooklyn. Artist commissions are tricky and often fail to resonate, but this new piece incorporates Overton’s themes about American industry and focus on materiality in impressive ways. Is this work too good for Williamsburg? We caught up with the artist to dance around that question and hear more about the project below.

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How did this project come about? How long has it been in the works?

I’ve been in conversation with the art team at Two Trees for several years, but the commission really took shape around May of 2023. At that time, after many engaging conversations, we all agreed that the Domino Sugar sign from 1967, the third in the series on the site, would comprise the materials for the project. The final placement of the work in The Refinery lobby was determined at this time as well. The lobby in the building is central to the entire campus of the former Domino factory, which is a public space and available to everyone. Since that time, the fabrication of this artwork has been the major focus of my day-to-day studio practice.

Could you take me through your process on this project? Did you know what you wanted to do with the sign right away?

My artmaking practice is often driven by specific sites and access to particular materials. For this commission, I knew that many months of the project would be spent disassembling the monolithic sign bolt by bolt and carefully salvaging each component to create the work for the lobby at The Refinery. The slow and methodical process of handling the materials and deconstructing the sign allowed me to familiarize myself with its components and think about how this material bounty could be used in a new site-related installation.

A lobby with a large yellow sculptural sign
Untitled (reverse virgule) installed. Photo by Etienne Frossard, Courtesy Two Trees

You really wouldn’t be able to tell what these letters were without being told. Was that one of your goals, to abstract them completely?

I am interested in utilizing found material that may have lost its original use value, giving it a new purpose, a new way of existing. In this effort, the history of past use is embedded in the material and thus the artwork. Each scratch and rust spot occurred during a specific time, and the holes of varying sizes once served a particular purpose; these characteristics are intentionally incorporated into the overall design of the installation. I wanted to make a work that could stand on its own and be enhanced by the accrual of the sign’s long existence in the urban environment. The varied understanding of the artwork increases if the viewer is clued into where the materials originated. However, it is not necessary to know every detail about the materials’ past.

The potential for the materials to extend beyond a commercial advertisement and become an abstract wall relief is essential to me. The new “Domino Sugar” sign installed on the exterior of the newly renovated building and my sculpture in the lobby speak to one another. They provide a relationship between the old and the new; much like how the building itself was renovated with some new bricks brought in to repair old bits that were missing or damaged. There is great potential in the old and new existing side-by-side, informing and supporting one another.

 This work returns to other themes you’ve explored surrounding American industry. What attracts you to these kinds of subjects?

I am attracted to the sheer potential of materials, especially discarded materials because there is still so much use left in them even when the original purpose is gone. The Domino Sugar sign was made of high-quality enamel and stainless steel. These materials have a long lifespan, and I am glad to have been able to extend their usage into this new context. I’ve always used and reused materials in my work, even to the point of disassembling existing sculptures to make new work. In some cases, such as during an architectural renovation, materials that don’t work as initially intended can be salvaged and utilized in a new way.

The sign feels a little like it’s been mounted on the wall like taxidermy. Is that reading way off base?

The work is an abstraction, so I am sure there are and will continue to be many different interpretations of it. This varied way of viewing is exactly why I made the work the way that I did. I want each viewer to experience it in their own way, from their own perspective.

What are your general feelings about Williamsburg Brooklyn?

It’s a lively neighborhood that has profoundly evolved in the recent past. The skyline and landscape have changed tremendously since I first moved here in the early aughts. There is a regenerative energy that people engage in when they inhabit space and re-envision architecture and the urban landscape. I’ve spent many hours along the waterfront in Williamsburg enjoying a unique view of the city. It is wonderful to now have a work situated in a place that is open to the public, that I know so well, and that fostered me when I moved here over twenty years ago.

Artist Virginia Overton Takes Us Inside the Domino Sugar Sign Transformation