Thursday, April 29, 2010

Embedded Pictures, and Writing About Same

This post is addressed to my students in Postwar American Visual Culture class. They are working on web-delivered exhibition projects across a variety of subjects. Within two weeks, they should be up and available for review. When they go up I'll provide a link to them.

Gang: I am reviewing your exhibition drafts. Things are looking good--these are going to be interesting projects. Your interpretive writing on the artifacts is often strong and useful.

But I have been struck by how unmoored some of this writing can become. Unmoored, that is, from the material facts of the object. I know that we live in a postmodern moment, and a constant flutter of images is part of our experience. The instantaneous access to Google search results can make it seem as if images live in some metadata ether, forever hovering, at the ready, popping into view whenever and wherever we wish to view them.

With no assist from any search engine, the study of art history can in its way create the impression that images exist for primary purposes of admiration and intellectual decodification.

To review: the objects we have been studying were all created for particular cultural contexts. An animated television advertisement from 1955 was produced for a client (say, General Motors) under the direction of an advertising agency (say, Leo Burnett) by an animation house (say, UPA). The ad was then broadcast during a particular time slot to reach particular viewers, who viewed the ad in their homes.

Likewise, a fiction illustration that ran in the Ladies Home Journal appeared in a sequence of fiction story opening spreads, typically four or five, that referred a reader to the resumption of each story in the back of the magazine. The content of the story, the placement of the story, the juxtaposition of the text with particular advertisements in the second portion of the story, the domestic context of the reader, the spatial environment of reception (i.e., the new suburban landscape) all of these aspects of the artifact are relevant. Such images were commissioned by art directors, who contacted the illustrator or his representative to secure the slot in his schedule. What’s more, the particular look of many such images were determined to a significant degree by the technologies of photography and projection (the latter referring to the ubiquitous but always concealed lucidograph, a projection device used for tracing purposes).

We cannot credibly look at such things without addressing the material facts of production, the cultural claims of advertisers, the market contexts faced by publishers, and the choices available to consumers. The answers, moreover, are never static; the shifting circumstances of commercial culture are always tricky for all participants in such markets.

Bottom line, we must confront the embedded reality of the image itself, both physically and culturally.

Hence, your citations for every object you present must be complete. If a film, cite the studio, the director, and if relevant, the production designer. If a magazine illustration, cite the issue, the illustrator, the author, and if available the page number (and ideally what preceded and followed the spread).

Even more fundamentally, here is the rule: describe first, interpret second. Without description, your interpretations run the risk of analytical rootlessness. They float off, referring to themselves, calling into question their own relevance. Tie your interpretations to observable evidence.

See you later today!

Image: Camel Cigarette adverstisement, Collier’s, February 29, 1936. In addition to selling cigarettes, the ad provides cross-promotion for Camel Caravan, a variety show sponsored by Camel that ran on CBS Radio beginning in 1933, and survived in revised forms until 1954.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Poetic Reportage

Last year I showed a few hazy reproductions of Meredith Nelson's drawings in Russia, captured on a digital camera. She came through town a while ago and I was able to see a few more. Now she has posted a full set of her Russian reportage work on Flickr, and it's a treat. The contrast is much clearer from the scans. Meredith began exploring this direction in a reportage seminar I taught during her final semester. The panorama below is from that body of work.

At first she balked at the idea that these marker "comps" she'd made could actually count as the real thing, but they had great presence and freshness. She persisted, and the work that emerged–of abandoned buildings in St. Louis–got her a travel scholarship to Russia. She intended to study abandoned Soviet sites. That proved a little difficult, so she settled in to do reportage in Moscow as well as a few other cities.

I found it quite difficult to select which images to show–the total set is quite winsome. The compositional economy and clarity of purpose (especially as expressed through color selection) are really great.

Many are exquisitely minimal. Bravo Ms. Nelson!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Toby Thane Neighbors

Big week starting tomorrow: our annual Communication Design capstone presentations, running Tuesday through Thursday. Forty-one seniors will present their projects, ranging from books to films to identity projects. Illustrators and designers.

I've been in contact recently with a former student who combines great drawing, rigorous design, a very strong sense of style, a mean work ethic and arch humor: the colorfully named Toby Thane Neighbors. He transferred in from a school in Texas. As I recall in our first conversation, on the phone, he used the word "sir" several times. Toby played football for a year–a tailback–then went beatnik as a senior, a bit self-mockingly. His capstone project was folktaley, somewhat animated, distinctive. When he left St. Louis, Toby was threatening to go herd goats in Mongolia. I almost believed him.

He's back in Texas, and western themes still show up in his personal work. I've always loved his stuff. It's abstract enough to fool you. It goes flat from time to time, always deliberately. But then you look at this array of NBA stars. He captures the distinctive aspect of each character. He describes even as he distorts and flattens.

Toby also manages atmospheric perspective really well, as shown in the Saga of Joshua Cain. His work references wood type and relief printing, the color palettes (most recently) of Push Pin Graphic publications, and other sundry sources.

So check out Mr. Neighbors' stuff at

Congratulations, Toby, on the cool new work. When are you going to design tee shirts? I'll want one when you do...

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Colored Eggs, Monochrome Passion

Waning light on Easter Sunday. The busiest time in the life of a university is the spring. My months of March and April are always harried ones. Partly as a result–and partly as a result of my own laziness–I never seem to get in synch with Lent. The march toward Easter is a blur, with none of the contemplative approach I associate with Advent, a liturgical season with which I seem to have more success.

Recently I came across a cache of Jack and Jill magazines from 1946 to 1957, and I scooped many of them up. Above, one of my favorite covers, credited to Rita N. Oliver. Most of the illustrators who worked for the publication during this period, its best, were women. The art direction, illustration, writing and printing are all first rate. Published by Curtis, J & J almost always satisfies. I’ll post other material as time permits. Somehow this cover captures the childlike joy of Easter, sans sugar or cloying dewy-eyed critters. Rich color, clear shape-making. (Zero line.) Warm, pleasant, happy.

On Friday I went to a Tenebrae service. Last month in New York we saw the Limbourg Brothers’ work on the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours. The (disassembled) volume covers a surprising variety of material, including the expected Passion sequence. Most the leaves are brilliantly colored, which makes the one below surprisingly powerful in context.

A representation of the very moment of Jesus’ death, the image is an essay in murk. The sun goes dark. Fear and regret descend. A rainbow-tailed comet scorches the heavens. The landscape cracks open. And our witnesses are terrified. (Circa 1407.)

The power of the Tenebrae follows on the shallow rejoicing of Palm Sunday and the ominous tones of the Last Supper. (Two years ago, I noted the Tenebrae with a few Eric Gill engravings here.)

The persisting power of humans' celebrations of spring–which take many forms in many traditions–can scarcely be argued. This week the magnolia in our yard exploded. Things bloom. The earth reawakens.

In 1949, Rita N. Oliver did her bit to capture it.