Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Aspirational Hieroglyphics

More than a year ago now, I received an old copy of Popular Mechanics in the mail from an old friend, Barbara Arnold, a Colorado painter. She knows I have a weakness for aging printed matter, and she guessed correctly that the content would appeal to me.

The editorial content of the magazine (technological instructions for home projects par excellence) pales in comparison to the advertising.

And I'm not the only one to think so, especially in the broader landscape of periodicals.

Sean Latham and Robert Scholes observed something comparable in their 2006 essay, “The Rise of Periodical Studies.” They describe the loss associated with library practices from the last century, according to which advertising material was routinely stripped out of magazines before they were bound into volumes. Latham and Scholes conclude, in part:

Modern culture was created from a still-obscure alchemy of commercial and aesthetic impulses and processes. And this mixture was most visible in magazines... If we really wish to know the past and not just a few monuments preserved from it, we must study the way that art and commodity culture influenced each other for the past three centuries and more. And this means exploring more fully and more intensely the fascinating world of periodicals.

True enough, though the implied binary equation (art and commerce) seems oversimplified. But that's a quibble.

I'm drawn to these things because they paint a portrait of their audience. Of course they are funny. And yes, they're corny beyond belief. (Though I have noticed that advertising never seems as stupid as it does in somebody else's country. Which suggests that we don't see it so clearly in our own place or time.) But finally I feel recognition, of limitation and longing, in the culture of self-improvement. I respect it.

And I cannot get enough of the coarse graphic form that fixes those dreams in time. The crappy relief printing, the awkward halftones, the sans serif declarations of purpose, the paper that all but bursts into flame in your hands.

I see these things like characters in a language of would be go-getters, markers of imagined meaning-through-doing.

And I can remember looking at things like these–they lived a long life through the middle of the last century–and wondering after them.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Coming This Week

I am several days away from putting up a revised Spartan Holiday site with ordering machinery. Once that's up the mag will begin to appear in stores. Distribution is evolving.

There's plenty of excitement in my house about the enterprise. To be frank, I've struggled to find the right format for my work for a number of years now. In 2008 I made a turn toward reportage, having very rarely ever maintained a sketchbook. I couldn't say why it happened, and I didn't know what to make of it at the time, but I started sitting in the waiting areas in shopping malls, among the bored boyfriends.

It all felt–and looked–so provisional. But I kept at it, having nothing better to do.

Early on I wrote:

I am learning, or trying to learn, to shut up. I have gone back to drawing the world... The act of showing up, of looking and listening, has been revealed to me as a wonderment. I expect to enjoy what comes next. I don’t know what it will be, of course. But I do know what it’ll be built out of. This. Now. Here.. I don’t need a studio. I need a sketchbook, pencils and brushes, and patience. A kitchen table. A sink...

But it turned out I did need a studio.

Of necessity I put it all in mothballs for about a year and half as we worked our way toward selling a condominium and buying a house. The sketchbook work stayed provisional under those terms. But when we moved into our new place just over two years ago, I began to feel more grounded. I began to project a future for my reportage work. I can't say I was extremely confident about it, but at least I could name it, in a way.

I think I wrote the name Spartan Holiday in a sketchbook for the first time at some point in 2009. The words captured something modest and serious and fun; they evoked the spirit of something-from-nothing that I recall from childhood.

I began to write this blog in 2007. I had a decent sense of what I wanted to do with it from the beginning. The informally serious style–which I associate with the form–came rather easily to me. My combined efforts in criticism, curating and drawing converged in the blog, though the relationship between my studio postings and the material I otherwise wrote about often seemed unresolved to me.

The insight that turned Spartan Holiday from awkward dream into fluid reality was the integration of the sketchbook work and the voice of the blog. All I had to do, I suddenly realized, was to write as if I were writing Graphic Tales. The rest would take care of itself. And it has. The visual vocabulary of Spartan Holiday in the early going includes brush-and-ink drawing, gouache painting, some digital color, monochromatic photography, machine type and hand drawn lettering.

I had the great good fortune of working with graphic designer Scott Gericke to develop the typographic approach, as well as the wordmark and identity.

Excited to have the publication out on the market, and even more excited to get No. 2 ready (summer 2012).

As soon as the site is up and taking orders, I'll announce it here.

Images: D.B. Dowd, Eventually the air cleared, Spartan Holiday No. 1: Shanghai Pictorial, February 2012. Dowd, Cosmetics Counter, pencil and gouache, 2008; Dowd, The paradoxes are everywhere, Spartan Holiday No. 1.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Perilous "Fun Facts"

Back in the classroom, leading a project in informational illustration in Word & Image 2. I debuted this project last year. I wrote then that I had assigned a "dream project":

...to design-slash-illustrate a pictorial display to accompany an explanation of a scientific concept to young people. I say dream project because it combines picture-making with serious visual thinking: from my perspective, fun as can be.

The given texts appear in The Question and Answer Book of Everyday Science, by Ruth A. Sonneborn with illustrations by Robert J. Lee. (Random House, 1961.) I love this stuff. As shown below, the example demonstrates clarity, using a plastic arrangement of pictorial content and well-chosen labels to get the material across. If you want to read the text that accompanies this image, the post I wrote then provides it.

But we don't always get great texts, or useful assignments.

I spent some time looking around in my surprisingly large collection of books with explanatory illustration. Many of them were written in the decades following World War Two, when a) publishers saw an expanding educational market b) science enjoyed tremendous prestige, and c) modernist graphic design and illustration styles adapted to convey informational content. Lots of very snappy diagrammatic explanations of jet engines.

For some reason I was unable to find a really good example at the time I needed it. The disarray in my studio may have played a part here. And my copy of Our Friend the Atom (Disney, 1957, a companion to a film of the same name) was back at my office, which certainly would have sufficed.

So I went to the bookshelf and pulled out a random volume of the 1964 World Book Encyclopedia (issued just as the fifties really ended, when the Beatles showed up).

I picked H, and began flipping through it. I landed on a long article addressing the human heart (the organ, not the symbol of sentiment). In terms of visual range, the page spread devoted to Wonders of the Heart seemed promising, at least initially. Some comparative cross-sections delivered useful information.

The black-and-white halftone images plus the red-and-blue spot color capture a period style. The content is not simple stuff. I can say so, having worked on a cardiac education project; explaining how a heart works is a great deal more complicated than one might think.

But the more I looked at that World Book spread, the dopier it got. First, the conceit of the page is a giveaway that we're headed for distraction. The Wonders of the Heart serves up the heinous Fun Fact Fallacy. Pointlessly colorful statements of fact do not aid, focus or deepen our understanding. Explanations of how a thing works or why it matters will rise and fall on the quality of the writing and the art direction in the service of that content. Being told that a human being's blood vessels laid end to end would go from New York to Sydney and back five times (five times!!) accomplishes very little. Okay, so there are a lot of them. And they cover a lot of ground. But what's the difference between saying five time or two times? Round trip from New York to Sydney is a long freaking way. So twice (two times!!) sounds like really a lot. But we're talking, in that case, of a 150 percent error. What is the point? Really a lot versus really really really a lot?

How does a picture of a Valentine's Day heart holding up a tank car add to my understanding? Why not a box car? Why not seventeen elephants? And how is the fact that a tank car holds liquid relevant? Is there blood in the tank? Are we talking industrial vampirism? Why doesn't the heart have biceps, or eyeballs, or an antic personality?

Seriously? Clockwise from three o'clock? And milk bottles? The vampire thing is out of control at this point.

A quivering, meaty old heart in a dish that sends–wait–radio signals across deep time?

So it's dopey. But it's not the illustrator/designer's fault. The content itself is faulty; you can't punch it up into anything useful.

So back to the project at hand for our Word and Image 2 students. Please suppress all urges to come up with, then decorate, fun facts.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Staggering out of the Garage, Squinting...

I have posted little in recent months. During the second half of this year I made a clear-minded decision to dial back the blogging to put my head down and focus on executing the first issue of Spartan Holiday. No. 1 is at the printers as I type. There's much to say about it, and I will offer more before long. I'm very excited about the project, in both the present and future tenses. The cover for the first issue appears above. Shanghai Pictorial is the first of two issues that address my adventures in China in 2011.

Spartan Holiday will appear twice a year, possibly with a supplement now and then. Let's call it graphic nonfiction, with an orientation to travel, street reportage and visual culture. The reading experience is coherent, informative and even funny in spots. 40 pages, including a self-cover. Nice stock. It's a substantial thing. (Retail price $12.95 U.S.) I am looking to place it in independent bookstores and comic book stores here and abroad. If you write or report on contemporary visual culture and would like an advance copy for review, please contact me.

Again, more soon. Sorry for the lessened production, but there's a reason I've been quiet...