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Leave Your Mark on The Signature Project

Patrick Dunning's ambitious art project arrives at the Sheen Center.

Patrick Dunning stars in The Signature Project at the Sheen Center.
(© Ingrid Butler)

When The Signature Project is complete, it will feature the work of over one million collaborators. That's a design team exponentially larger than those of the biggest Broadway musicals, something you might not expect to find at off-Broadway's Sheen Center. Then again, this unabashedly unique show from Patrick Dunning is difficult to compare to anything that can currently be seen in New York.

Primarily a visual artist, Dunning begins the show by giving us a little background about his childhood in Ireland and his creative awakening: His first major piece was a giant painting of half an eye that, when suspended from Dublin's Ha'penny Bridge, reflected in the River Liffey to complete the picture. Dunning describes it as an eye looking toward America, so it is no surprise that he now lives and works here, crisscrossing the country as he works on an even bigger project.

Patrick Dunning stands in front of a projection of his giant canvas for The Signature Project.
(© Ingrid Butler)

That would be the 76 x 36 ft. canvas seen above, which has been a work in progress since 1992. It's time-consuming not only because of its size, but also the painstaking way in which Dunning has determined to paint it. One million individual signatures will serve like dots in a Georges Seurat painting, bringing points of color and light to this celestial landscape. Dunning is only a third of the way finished, but each audience member is invited onstage to contribute to the canvas and move him closer to his goal.

At the same time, Dunning has embedded hidden pictures that can only be viewed by going beyond our visible color spectrum. Themes emerge from the canvas like variations in a Bach fugue as Dunning expounds upon his interest in the electromagnetic spectrum, traditional Celtic music, the experimental instruments of Léon Theremin, and cats.

Dunning exhibits the intellectual curiosity that one might get from an exceptionally good host of a PBS children's show. He shares his discoveries with gentleness and passion, lightly peppering the evening with dad jokes. It makes us like him and want to hear more.

Eric Paul Vitale directs The Signature Project as if it were a high-concept variety show, with frequent music breaks during which Dunning plays guitar with a band of stellar musicians (Emily Duncan, Melissa Maricich, Cody Marcukaitis, and Cat Patterson). In collaboration with John Erickson and Neil Blume, Dunning moves the show along through visually appealing projections that illustrate his travels and the people he's met while amassing signatures. A rotating cast of Irish step dancers jubilantly prance across the stage, adding yet another element to a work of art that keeps expanding its scope. It all adds up to an event that is part gallery exhibition, part concert, part TED Talk, and totally delightful.

Patrick Dunning performs with Cat Patterson and Melissa Maricich in The Signature Project.
(© Ingrid Butler)

This generally pleasant evening might outwardly seems apolitical, but its emphasis on the human spirit and its idiosyncrasies represents something important. As Jordan Harrison points out in The Amateurs, it wasn't that long ago that individualism was an alien concept, and the pursuit of happiness was not seen as a worthy goal in and of itself. Some might argue that our valorization of the individual has led to a more selfish society, but this giant canvas created from a million distinct brush strokes will one day dispute that. When you look at the big picture, a society of individuals is capable of creating exquisite wonders — and that is something definitely worth defending.