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REDCAT's 'Two Lines Align' reveals a generational shift in graphic design.

Works by Geoff McFetridge and Ed Fella shows how lines between commerce and creativiyy have blurred.

By Hugh Hart
Special to The Times

March 23, 2008

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.

Similarly, James Jean says he only works with clients who give him free rein "to do whatever I want." Born in Taiwan, Jean, 28, earned an MFA from New York's School of Visual Art. He then attracted a following for his dreamy figurative paintings by producing cover art for comic books. Since moving to Santa Monica, he's designed wine labels, created the graphics for a Grammy-nominated My Chemical Romance CD package and produced patterns for Prada wallpaper, dress fabrics and purses. That partnership culminated in an animated short film, "Trembled Blossoms," currently shown at the fashion retailer's flagship store in Manhattan.

Besides showcasing Jean's "brand," as he calls it, these projects paved the way for a New York exhibition early next year. "In school I was very interested in painting and fine art with a capital A because I wanted to be a painter, but I also read comics and was into graphic design," Jean says. "I guess I had a very pluralistic view of things."

Citing Richard Prince's handbag collaboration with Marc Jacobs, Jeff Koons' licensing deal authorizing Target to reproduce his images on beach towels, and Takashi Murakami's co-branded Louis Vuitton merchandise sold at his recent MOCA exhibition, Jean notes, "When you look at how saturated our lives are with images and ideas, it's a natural progression. Young people are so well-versed in all sorts of visual media that if someone creates strong work, it goes across all sorts of different industries and boundaries."

The appetite is whetted by the Internet. Like scores of other Web-savvy artists, Jean makes money by selling books, prints and other personal work online. He straightforwardly subtitles "Art + Commerce." "The Internet makes it really easy to find art and respond to it without any kind of bias," he says.

Of course, the marketplace can be a fickle muse, and a visual aesthetic driven by commercial concerns always runs the risk of sacrificing soul for style. Echoing social critic Thomas Frank, who warned against the commodification of culture in his 1998 critique "The Conquest of Cool," Blauvelt notes: "The risk is that the work could become facile. But there's less emotional baggage to deal with: 'Am I selling out, not selling out?' That's not an issue because it all gets stirred up in this big pot."

Among those contributing in recent years to Los Angeles' graphics artsy graphics pot is Gary Baseman, whose so-called "pervasive art" propagates a delirious spawn of devil babies and bloopy-nosed dimwits via TV cartoon series, art toys, magazine illustration and paintings. Camille Rose Garcia produces gallery works, prints, T-shirts and children's books peopled with saucer-eyed kids stranded in a Disney-meets-Philip K. Dick wasteland. Self-styled propagandist Shepard Fairey produces iconic silk-screen posters -- he created the much-circulated Barack Obama campaign portrait -- in between commercial assignments for movie studios and record labels.

Carving a new career path

FEW artists harness singular creative vision with business smarts more adeptly than Tim Biskup. After attending Otis College of Art and Design, he worked for six years as a technical painter and draftsman at the Cartoon Network and other animation studios before launching a multi-platform operation powered by a "Modernist Baroque" menagerie of semi-humanoid creatures.

Biskup credits his apprenticeship in TV animation with the technical skill he now draws on in his art projects. "I don't think it's a bad thing to cut your teeth as a visual artist in a world that is all about visual communication," Biskup says. "Instead of struggling as a fine artist for years and eventually breaking through, a lot of artists, especially in Los Angeles, work in whatever industry they can to get more experience," he says. "Their personal vision as an artist comes out of that direction and creates a very different vibe than what happens in New York, where MFA artists have their theory in place and come to their style from a visual place that is not necessarily very mature."

Leafing through a pile of sketches in his studio, McFetridge sees the flux between self-inspired art and market-oriented graphics as being "very muddy, but maybe it's a positive kind of mud." On the other hand, he muses, trend-setting image makers who hitch their revenue stream to advertising campaigns just might overstay their welcome with patrons who write the checks.

"Corporations seek out people with the clear thoughts who exist on the fringe almost as if the corporations have no brain," McFetridge says. "But maybe companies will become much more proscriptive about their marketing and go back to 'We know best.' Kind of like at Apple where you've got Steve Jobs going, 'I know. Don't ask them, ask me.' That could be the future."