Art & Development, Research

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Like: H&FJ, type designers extraordinaire

Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones are lecturing at Cooper Union next Tuesday night. If only I lived in New York…

H&FJ are among the country’s best and most influential living type designers. Years ago, I parlayed my art skills into illustration and graphic design; in the past year or two, I’ve focused my attention on typography — thanks to books by Robert Bringhurst and Ellen Lupton. I think you can see the effect on both my design and art work.

I admire H&FJ for the consistency of the excellence of their output, which is always considered and gimmick-free. Their type families are remarkably thorough and usable; they manage to both timeless and modern. I know my praises sound like platitudes, but you can see their skill with the ubiquity of the typeface Gotham. More recently, Archer has been catching my eye with more regularity. It’s cute, fresh and a little cheeky.

LIKE: Conceptualism and Identity Art, neither compromised

I DON’T WANT TO BRAND something called “Black Conceptual Art.” It’s less a question about who produced the work than of the object’s material history. If you can get to that history, and if that can take you to a very specific place, culturally and racially, then that’s where you locate the blackness. It becomes a secondary discovery rather than a necessary attribute of the work itself.

“30 Seconds Off an Inch” does not look at the conceptualisms that followed Minimalism. Instead, it investigates the kind of art that asks the viewer to think about something beyond the sheer materiality of the object, beyond formalism and formal practice. The works ask you to wonder where the trash originated, for instance, and about the history of a specific cloth and clothing, or whether the work is appropriated. There is a history and a lineage to all the works in the show that lend themselves to conceptual thought beyond the objects.

The viewer should have a sense of recognition when walking through the exhibition. There is not a lot of tape around the objects—I want visitors to be able to put their noses up to the works. The objects in the show are not to be seen as metaphors, but very literally, and you don’t need an advanced degree in art history to read them.

—Naomi Beckwith, “500 Words,” Artforum, 11/25/2009

Beckwith is the assistant curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she organized “the exhibition ’30 Seconds Off an Inch,’ which explores the intersection of identity politics and dominant tendencies of the 1960s, from conceptual practices to Arte Povera.”

Wowee. I like this. It’s plain language on how to look at conceptual art, and how material can have content relating to identity. It challenges the ideas that conceptual art is too élite to be easily appreciated or too hermetic to have meaningful content, and that art relates to identity has to be populist/symbolist/representational. Well done.

LIKE: studio

This morning, in my dream, I found myself in a bare room: white walls, unpainted wood floors. I was sitting at cheap melamine dinette table. To my left was a the kind of kitchen you’d find in economy apartments — cream colored, with a small fridge and low fluorescent tubes. A cutout in the wall from which a cook might engage guests while attending the electric stovetop. But ahead of me was an expansive room, maybe 75 feet long. One side was all old industrial windows. The space was empty, unlit and dusty. It was my studio, and the sense of potential surged in me. It was so much space that I could work on a project, walk away from it, start a new project, and so on, for a long time before running out of space. I wouldn’t have to re-organize whenever I changed projects. To the side of the kitchen, I found a walk-in closet: my painting and flat work storage. The place was a bit drafty and quiet, but I was overjoyed. I was in New York. My job was to make art. The studio was mine.


Summer Reading List 2009

I’ve taken a break from going to shows in order to hit the books. Some of these books are just food for thought, others will be reviewed in due time here. In the meantime, though, here’s my Summer Reading List so far:

Source: University of Chicago Press website

Source: University of Chicago Press website

Johanna Drucker’s “Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity,” University of Chicago, 2005

I’ve become an acolyte, and I can admit that I can barely restrain myself from evangelizing about this book. Drucker’s an American artist, theorist and art/design historian. She’s currently a research fellow at Stanford U., but she’s typically based at UCLA. “Sweet Dreams” presents Drucker’s critical theory with a refreshing methodology: developing critical theory out of contemporary artistic practice, rather than projecting theory onto art. Her thesis is that the academia’s radical negativity (that criticality = opposition) has become orthodoxy, which is rigid and outmoded. She proposes a position of acknowledged complicity that is better suited for the attitudes of affirmation, engagement with material pleasure, and complexity of art of the 1990s and 2000s.

I’ve only read the first few chapters, but I’d recommend this books to artists and curators interested in theory and new ways of understanding recent contemporary practice. I wouldn’t recommend it to artists allergic to aesthetic theory (though Drucker accomplishes a Herculean task of summing up modernism, postmodernism and aesthetic theory in the first three chapters), but she also writes cogently (it’s not a speculative work of philosophy—it’s precise and methodical).

Also on the list, in various stages of completion:

Source: MIT Press website

Source: MIT Press website

Martha Buskirk, “The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art,” MIT Press, 2003

Buskirk’s investigation into “contingency” in 1980s and 1990s art might be a good bridge between Modernist “autuonomy” and Drucker’s “complicity” for art of the 1990s and aughts.

Source: Tal Ben-Shahars website

Source: Tal Ben-Shahar's website

Tal Ben-Shahar, “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” McGraw-Hill, 2007

Positive Psychology from a Harvard University professor. Hands on, concise, useful for reminding oneself of what’s ultimately meaningful in life.

Source: Lucifer Effect website

Source: Lucifer Effect website

Philip Zimbardo, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” Random House, 2008

The psychologist behind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment turns towards morality and how humans are highly influenced by their conditions.

Source: Simon & Schuster website, Learned Optimism CD page

Source: Simon & Schuster website, Learned Optimism CD page

Martin E. P. Seligman, “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,” Free Press, 1990/1998.

Much of my inquiry into optimism and pessimism has been shaded by skepticism, so I think it’s high time to embrace the attitude/beneficent delusion of optimism.

Source: Princeton Architectural Press website

Source: Princeton Architectural Press website

Ellen Lupton, “Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors and Students,” Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.

A concise, erudite read; I will continue to employ this newly gained knowledge for a long time.


Points of Reference: posters, typefaces, Lake Merritt

The artists behind Shotgun Review are doing some really interesting individual and collaborative projects.

I’m SUPER digging the two projects on Joseph del Pesco‘s site right now.

pile of artist's funding posters
State of the Arts, The Present Group & Horwinski Press, December 2008.
Image source:

Beautiful posters influenced by wood type and mixed-fountain printing, demanding better working conditions for artists. What’s not to like?

Black Market Type & Print Shop
Joseph del Pesco, Black Market Type & Print Shop, Articule, Montréal, June 2008
Image source:

Artist’s typefaces—I love it! It’s a great coincidence, because after working on hand-lettering during the Breathe Residency, and reading Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type recently, I decided I’d like to design a typeface. It’ll probably be a display face, exuberant and expressive at the risk of legibility. But I figure it’ll be an art project, not a design project; I know enough to leave the development of extensive type families to the pros.

There are so many crappy fonts in the world already, why bring another one into existence? Well, the fact is, even typographic design can be a little subjective; Blackletter was considered very legible in the early 20th century among Germans and inscrutable in other parts of the world. And history, as well as Lupton’s book, is filled with other examples of typefaces that were reviled in their time. For example, Baskerville, a typeface that many modern eyes would consider just another serif roman font, rather boring and not particularly distinctive, was reviled for

Blinding the Readers in the Nation; for the strokes of your letters being too thin and narrow, hurt the Eye.

–as quoted in Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type

Scott Oliver's Once Upon A Time, Happily Ever After, audio tour of Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA

Scott Oliver's Once Upon A Time, Happily Ever After, audio tour of Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA

I’ve always liked Scott Oliver‘s material investigations/post-conceptual modifications of everyday objects, and his next project—an audio tour of Oakland’s Lake Merritt—totally floats my boat for two reasons.

A. I love Lake Merritt, it’s one of the few things that keep my regard for living in Oakland really high.

It’s a nice open space in the middle of the tree-starved flatlands, and while it’s not the most natural of places, it plays an important role larger ecosystems. Lake Merritt is not a “man-made lake,” but an estuary, which is why it’s a unique habitat for migratory birds.

It’s also a nice public space used by a cool cross-section of residents: runners, walkers, people who put on jogging suits to get coffee at Peet’s, guys hanging out in their cars all day, serious athletes running the stairs, office workers and families from all walks of life.

B. Oliver’s working with some really bright collaborators, and bringing onboard a lot of local arts organizations. Any local histories can be tricky, but Oliver’s got the right approach.

Oliver’s got a matching grant, so he needs to raise matching funds in the form of donations from individuals. Matching grants are challenges in any situation, but I don’t envy his position in this economy.

Once Upon A Time, Happily Ever After: An Audio Walking Tour of Lake Merritt will offer an immersive audio experience to listeners—using a mixture of ambient field recordings, interviews, music and narration to weave an idiosyncratic but approachable narrative that will guide listeners through the various natural and artificial elements that surround Lake Merritt. With an emphasis on local history, cultural diversity, urban ecology, and the power of imagination, Once Upon A Time, Happily Ever After will explore the invisible that surrounds the visible—the stories and forces that shape the lake and our perceptions of it. Once Upon A Time, Happily Ever After will be free to the public and widely accessible to Lake Merritt visitors through both on-site and remote locations.

To support the audio tour of Lake Merritt, email Scott Oliver at: knot (at) sbcglobal . net.