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A line has been erased

REDCAT charts a generational shift in graphic design, one that sets creativity free.

March 23, 2008|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

Sitting on Geoff McFetridge's work table in an Atwater Village studio, there's a man holding a trombone that's turning into a chair. A dog's face bursts from the hoodie of a phantom figure. An umbrella shelters a man holding an ice cream cone, a half-circle and triangle forming a spare ink-black silhouette. The caption awaits.

In the imaginary landscape where the 36-year-old graphic designer spends much of his time, shapes and words bump against one another on their way toward a solid idea. Sometimes the idea helps sells a product, as with the faceless throngs decorating a Japanese minibike or the paintings of giant numerals propped against the wall, commissioned by Patagonia sportswear as a T-shirt graphic. Other times, McFetridge draws simply for his amusement.

"I never quite understood the distinction between doing graphics for myself and doing graphics for clients, or doing graphics for an installation or a gallery or T-shirts," he says, "I don't perceive a real boundary between fine art and the graphics work."

A sampling of McFetridge's wares is on display at "Two Lines Align" through April 6 at REDCAT gallery downtown. The exhibition pairs his drawings, watercolors and silk-screens with works by his former CalArts professor, Ed Fella, whose exuberant works usher commercial illustration techniques into the realm of graphics-for-art's-sake.

Encompassing Fella's '70s-era graphics experiments, when advertising and fine art occupied two distinct spheres, "Two Lines Align" underscores the emergence over the last decade of what might be termed the graphic design auteur. Overriding classic hack work/starving artist dichotomies, this new breed of conceptually astute image-maker is more than happy to blur the line between personal expression and art for hire.

As exhibition curator Michael Worthington points out, "Geoff works as an illustrator and he shows at art galleries but still essentially has design at the core of his practice, whereas Ed always had to keep his experimental practice totally separate from his commercial practice. By putting Geoff and Ed together, you can see how design has shifted culturally in relationship to art and illustration."

Tagged by Pasadena designer-author Stefan Bucher as "The Neil Young of Los Angeles graphic designers" in tribute to his maverick integrity, Fella, 69, quit advertising midcareer to earn an MFA at Michigan's Cranbrook Academy of Art, then joined the CalArts faculty. Since redefining himself as an "exit-level designer," Fella has churned out a steady stream of colored-pencil drawings, collages, doodles and fliers, including a series of posters archived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Anchoring "Two Lines Align" is the complete collection of 80 Fella notebooks. Fella says, "These sketchbooks are a construct that has to do with making, quote-unquote, art in the sense of illustration, lettering, decorative illustrations, borders, cartoons. All of that comes out of commercial art, which has a very rich genealogy of 20th century forms. Although it's highly abstracted and deconstructed, my work is based on those techniques and forms."

Compartmentalized no more

In one instance, a teetering tower of squirming hand-drawn fonts spells out the title message. Fella employs the central units of graphic design -- text and image -- to craft a self-contained pictogram that advertises nothing but its own joy. Besides sharing a fondness for hand-drawn whimsy, Fella and McFetridge match up in Worthington's view as a telling timeline that illuminates the evolution of graphic design as a purely creative outlet. "Geoff has essentially turned upside down the traditional designer-client relationship with this massive overlap," Worthington says. "He works as an illustrator and he shows at art galleries but still essentially has design at the core of his practice, whereas Ed always had to keep his experimental practice totally separate from his commercial practice. By putting Geoff and Ed together, you can see how design has shifted culturally in relationship to art and illustration."

Elaborating on the shift taking place at the intersection of fine art and graphics, Andrew Blauvelt, design director of Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, says, "Designers now are more often treated like hired guns who can be brought in to give more personality and street credibility to companies. It's increasingly commonplace for agencies to hire a graphic designer who will put their own stamp on things." For example, National Forest Design co-founders Justin Krietemeyer and Steven Harrington draw on a retro Americana sensibility to art direct Urban Outfitters' catalog, design snowboards and paint murals for the Standard Hotel. At the same time, the artists are preparing a series of paintings for a new show at Subliminal Projects in Echo Park.

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