“Just what is it that makes today’s typography so different so appealing?”
Lately, I’ve become nostalgic for the old print metaphors. When my screen’s not getting hijacked by pop-up windows too elusive for SpamAssassin, or idling like a stalled car from “server unknown” errors, I get treated to 3-D logos, beveled buttons, and drop shadows that make the Bat Signal look meekly prostrate by comparison. In a time of agile fat graphics and dancing GIFs, I’m looking for something with the sedate simplicity of an eyechart viewed from a comfortable distance, not an Escheresque regression of circuit boards that flirts with heavy metal album covers. The New York design house, Funny Garbage, for instance, offers a reprieve from these shrieking bells and whistles by making a virtue out of simplicity; in websites littered with paper smudges, hand rendered type, and photocopied collages, they recall the old days of ink on paper, of settling in to your Lazy Boy or barcalounger, briskly snapping your newsprint to attention, and letting your eyes settle comfortably above the fold.
Newspapers and magazines — as anyone who’s worked with Quark knows — are designed on macro principles: throw a classic Gothic header up and simply pour in the rest of the text, while the “sticky” graphics of websites labor under the burden of catching, keeping, and “recirculating” your attention around a 12 inch screen. The “chrome,” or the interface elements surrounding a web browser, is the boundary surrounding that tight field. This is where vector graphics pile up, where Flash files strut and fret their hour on an increasingly crowded stage. And “stage” turns out to be a uniquely fitting metaphor: design gurus proselytize the “staging of a compelling user experience” — indeed, more and more, they refer to themselves as “experience engineers” searching for their clients “triggers” rather than gauging desire in terms of totalizing vision. Find the trigger, conventional wisdom dictates, and the user is just three hyperlinks away from getting lost in a maze of point of purchase product teases (often disguised as a puzzle or game) and, eventually, a bit-mapped shopping cart icon. Try your hand at the General Mills Fruity obstacle course: players wander around in an onscreen Fruit Roll-Ups factory that makes the labyrinth on the back of a Chips Ahoy bag look like a walk in an uncluttered park by comparison.
Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, co-authors of “The Experience Economy” a treatise on our giddy middle-future, are even more succinct on this point: “Information is not the foundation of the New Economy because information is not an economic offering. Only when companies constitute it in the form of information services — or information goods and informing experience — do they create economic value.” And while it’s practically axiomatic that this “informing experience” is compelled by a culture of distraction — the short attention span theater of the two minute looped art video or 100 cable channels — what most pundits fail to remark on is that the diverted mind feeds on divergence; in fact, its evolved to anticipate and expect it. A frantic world, no doubt, needs an antic aesthetic.
But in a growing dialectic of informationalism vs. opticality, of Minority Report’s blinking smart kiosks that address you by name and Episode it’s Baroque digital backdrops that serve to attenuate what little narrative there is, opticality seems to be winning. The latter’s Persian minarets, teeming obelisks, and wholesale quotations of Bucky Fuller seem to drive the story-arc more than any Homeric retelling of Joseph Campbell’s hero-cycle ever could. Ironically, though, a divergent culture breeds a convergent technology. Time is money, space is limited, and no matter how much data compression your broadband cable can carry no amount of video, sound, and graphic weaving seems too small. What’s lost amid the rhizomatic shuffle of sustained hit duration is typography’s original mission of statuesque transparency. Typography, in essence, is a form of idealized writing that harnesses the purely formal qualities of tone, tempo, and logical structure inherent in the simplest pop song, let alone the rigors of an Elizabethan sonnet. Not surprisingly, the ancients referred to the page as a “textus” or cloth, and imbedded in this description is the notion of spinning or braiding words into a coherent whole.
What’s needed, here, amid the choking data-smog, is language; a pictographic universal Esperanto where comparatively inert words are not subsumed by fashionable hypergraphic’s lambent charms. An extended equilibrium between medium and message, you might say, wherein you leave not only dazzled, but informed. In speaking to JonMarc Edwards, the importance of “slowing things down” became a recurring motif within our conversations, of reaffirming the flatness of the picture plane — in stark opposition to the depthless wormhole’s trendy ubiquity — on one hand, and of devising ways to make the harried viewer look more closely at the formal attributes of his paintings. This aesthetic downshifting, in effect, allows the viewer to idle in neutral while in front of the painting, prolonging the dialectic between informationalism and opticality that Edwards has enacted, rather than the brief “acknowledge, move on” mindset that sadly characterizes much of the world’s contemporary viewing habits.
As it turns out, then, simple fonts (of the artist’s own devise) deployed with a certain monastic rigor, yield paintings that recall the elegant simplicity of Chinese calligraphy (think: Brice Marden’s taut “Cold Mountain” series), without devolving into the diminishing returns of the connoisseur’s love of line for its own sake. Legibility, to Edwards, is key, but he doesn’t capitulate so easily as, say, the political rhetoric of Barbara Kruger’s Your Comfort is My Silence (1981), a simple text/image hybrid, culled from the semiotics of advertising, which quickly devolves into the same agitprop that Kruger would like to critique.
When discussing his work, Edwards is able to slip as easily between a description of the superimposed letters above the brim of the old Chicago White Sox cap, and the terminally flat early paintings of Frank Stella, who’s much invoked phrase, “What you see, is what you see” speaks volumes about Edwards’s seemingly crypto-mystic phrases. At first glance, a painting like Wage War Words (1994), looks as blunt and direct as a ransom note; he conflates the palimpsest strategy made popular in the 80s, with a Rubik’s Cube’s rigorous geometry. Edwards explained to me that he’s trying to instill the kind of contemplative mood lost in our point-and-click world. In fact, a recent study suggests that when downloading a webpage our first instinct is to search for that glowing link rather than reading actual words. Navigation, it would appear, trumps the modest pleasures of the text. But even today’s “text,” as Edwards well knows, is sometimes nothing more than an aggregate of samples from the past: DJ Shadow’s songs comprised entirely of loops proves this, as well as the royalty checks James Brown picks up monthly. In fact, the term “bootleg” used to refer to a scratchy home-made recording clandestinely made at a concert, but now describes the synthesis of two or more whole songs, often of widely different genres, seamlessly spliced together. Salt ‘N’Pepa’s “Push It” mixed with the Stooges “No Fun” is but one. It’s precisely this overwhelming landscape of pomo collage that allows Edwards to move freely between early assemblage works like 4 Interpretations of the Square (1989), whose wheels, broom and glass jars affixed to the side of the frame recall Ashley Bickerton’s work of the same period, and his own later textual paintings and billboards.
In order to restore an extended meditative reverie, though, Edwards invented a language loosely referred to as Monosyble. He describes it as: “a reconfiguration of text, compressing single words or word sequences into a new single form.” Each typographic cluster fits into our zeitgeisty obsession with compression, yet the letters never threaten to overwhelm each other, let alone us. Monosyble strikes me as an act of creative non-interference, of setting up a language system in the manner of Joseph Kosuth’s early koan-like works, and standing back to let the viewer puzzle out the meaning. Most textual languages, when transferred to the more coded and ambiguous world of art, operate within a fixed realm of perpetual symmetry, perpetual asymmetry, or a combination of the two. Monosyble, by contrast, has a logical regularity that accrues from layering, stacking, and piling; a genre more in keeping with information architecture and dynamic typography than the sly puns and anagrams found in the typical Ed Ruscha painting.
Monosyble, to be sure, is a game, and carries all of the joyous connotations of a system predicated on happy surprises, but unlike the linguistic play of OuLiPo — say, George Perec’s omission of the letter “E” in his novel A Void, or Julio Cortazar’s line skipping in Hopscotch — you never sense Edwards succumbing to the narcissistic glee of his predecessors. Monosyble, in other words, is not designed to draw attention to itself, to revel in it’s own cleverness just because it can, but to slow down the viewing process in a painting tradition newly overloaded with slick, techno-cyborgian illustrations and cartoony floating worlds. In this respect, Edwards’s paintings derive their obdurate coolness from the reductive tensions one associates with Mondrian’s rectilinear fields; colors, in the Dutchman’s case, whose innate weight push and pull against each other like breathing tiled mosaics.
By no means as counterintuitive as Pig Latin, nor as thinly veiled as Nauman’s early neon sign Violins Violence Silence (1981), Monosyble nevertheless bears a short, more thorough, explanation. Edwards, for our edification, has compiled “Five Principles”:
1) each character = one syllable (see #5).
2) a character may be broken into two halves, upper & lower.
3) largest letter in character is to be read first.
4) smaller upper letter is read before larger lower letter.
5) a line bisecting a character indicates 2 or more syllables occupying one character.
With this critical gloss in hand, the simple haiku of Text Acts (1993) — which, in appearance at least, initially carries the concision one associates with an undulating graffiti tag and the Lego modularity of Scandinavian design — begins to reanimate itself, to wriggle out of its linguistic cocoon simply by adhering to the syntactic strictures Edwards has set up. The type rests starkly on the canvas surface like a bizarre hieroglyph; only after you gain a growing familiarity with the artist’s five principles, does a sort of time-lapse resolution start to emerge. Suspense, here, resides in the before and after between hermetic logo and emergent language. Words untangle themselves and tumble across the cinematic scrim of your mind; what was once a static knot in the embryonic stage becomes a streaming title sequence with a prolonged half-life. Thus empowered by Edwards’s mock-Berlitz tutorial, the lines read: “Text makes love to those / who read the space where lines touch / the mind’s eye to act.”
For Edwards, activation of the mind’s eye is key, and brings to bear a point made by Robert Bringhurst in his book, The Elements of Typographic Style, long the seminal text on the subject: “In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read. Yet in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn.” Exactly. In an increasingly desperate quest for brand recognition and market share, print mags increasingly jettison quaint notions like harmony and counterpoint for spectacles of pure velocity. A certain fatigue through stridency sets in when, month after month, magazines search for that elusive serif or embedded font, moving farther and farther away from mainstays such as Times New Roman, Helvetica, Arial, and Courier. Nothing more remains than an infantile urge for attention when the whirling Op-Art kaleidoscopes of the average splash page dictate conventional taste. In this light, it’s worth noting that since 1989, when Edwards adopted his mature style, his choice of font has remained consistent. Part of this can be explained by “localization,” the idea that, as words are translated to other cultures, a double-byte character conversion for non-Roman alphabets such as Japanese, Hebrew, Cyrillic, or Arabic, must be employed. Microsoft must be asking themselves this question, at least in visual terms, as they try to export an operating system with a corrugated trash can icon to countries that use indigenously woven wicker baskets. Edwards, for his part, seems to have anticipated this; indeed his work has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, and Korean.
As a long time resident of Los Angeles, though, Edwards has spent his fair share of time gridlocked in his car, clocking freeway signs, and looking for the most convenient exit ramp. All Los Angelenos, in a way, are mobile-flaneurs, taking Benjamin’s notion of the self-aware pedestrian strolling the modernist arcade, and transferring it to the climate controlled environment and navigational bridge of the dashboard and windshield. That tempered, shock-proof glass is our contemporary viewfinder, ticking off reality, not at 24 frames per second, as Godard famously remarked, but at 15, 30, or even 55 miles per hour. It’s contoured edges (and your eyes on the cars in front of you) tend to crop out deep overhead space — L.A.’s celestial haze — but are perfect for scoping out low slung strip malls with their visored canopies flapping with faux-cheer in the blurry heat. No deeply recessed Hudson River School landscapes here, just a succession of Bauhaus-derived logos in quaint primaries competing for mindshare. LensCrafters, MobilMart, Blockbuster, and Kinko’s become so many WebPages that demand more than just a search engine to get you parked in front of their cement curbs.
But the familiar signage that’s meant to entice has become the familiar signage that puts you to sleep. Edwards, in his My Work is Here billboard series, adopts the vernacular of the rent-a-billboard to initiate a Situationist wake-up call to both dozing drivers and the shock-jocks, personal injury lawyers, and Century 21 hucksters that inhabit this cardboard cult-of-personality world. His piece, Earth Shattering Yawns (2001), features the characteristic monosyble format superimposed on a crowd shot of what looks to be some jaded studio audience. Among the crisscrossing electrical lines, telephone poles, traffic lights and bus-stop benches on the corner of Westwood and Santa Monica Blvd. — that is to say, your typical exurban Dead Zone — Edwards’s gigantic letters have the jarring impact of alien crop circles carved into your backyard by particularly industrious extraterrestrials. Edwards, whose billboard was up for the month of February, smartly timed his piece to coincide with both the post-Superbowl and pre-Oscar hype. That studio audience, then, is not the tuxedo and Vera Wang-clad crowd outfitted with rented diamonds staring demurely back at the presenter like desperate androids, but perhaps infomercial extras ready to receive sacraments of increased memory, a séance with the other side, or a rotisserie grill. He describes Earth Shattering Yawns as a “cryptic comment on the mass media’s need to manufacture essentially meaningless events that celebrate the industry’s self-congratulatory system of exclusion and tokenism.”
Truth Orgasm, which hovers benignly over Johnie’s Diner and directly across from LACMA’s gold-tiled column squeezed into the building’s International Style bunker, is another of Edwards’s billboard pieces that debuted in 2000. Nestled on the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire Blvd, in the heart of Museum Mile, Truth Orgasm acts as a still life amongst a landscape of competing architectural idioms. While Earth Shattering Yawns seems covertly smuggled between a smorgasbord of banal signage, in effect, becoming an exercise in Where’s Waldo-like deception, Truth Orgasm possesses a more radical juxtapositional critique, pairing the retro-vintage stylings of a 50s era diner — all Deco scripts and fake stone — with the billboard’s oracular presence. A duel between two competing idioms rather than an all out melee of advertorial language. A duel, too, or at least a pas-de-deus, between “orgasm’s” Dionysian pleasure on one hand, and “truth’s” Cartesian rationality on the other.
Edwards, by taking his work out of the studio and transferring it to the immediacy of the street, not only makes it more accessible to a wider, more diverse audience, but short-circuits protocols of taste, connoisseurship, and the invisible black market contract between artists, dealers, and collectors conducted behind closed doors. He is the latest growth ring in a genealogical tree that began with Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s psychogeographical “drifts” (collaged maps that destabilized the rigid Parisian grid), and continued through Peter Smithson’s Cluster City of 1952, a networked blueprint of branching veins and arteries subtly anticipating Constant’s New Babylon, the ultimate utopian urban plan and a model of supercomplexity, if not chaos theory. But while Situationism cleaved to a Brutalist aesthetic, trying to wrest a rough poetry from that period’s New Industrial streamlined silhouettes, Edwards goes toe to toe with the New Economy mindset of sublime fetish graphics, matching corporate semiotics point for point, but piggy-backing on top of them subliminal messages that leak out in a slow, steady drip. The 19th Century writer, Isadore Ducasse, once insisted, “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.” And Edwards, whether inserting his own complex cluster bombs in the city streets or his more quietly trenchant pieces in the gallery, proves that rule, but with a twist. Plagiarism, need not suggest an embezzlement of content, delivery system, or profit driven motive, but it helps to master the source code.
How, then, does one describe the driving force behind Light (1996), a painting that seems to speak its own name, that is, quite literally, the thing-in-itself as Kant might say? Light is one word, “written,” so to speak, in white characters on a black, Ad Reinhardt-like monochrome; it appears to illuminate its own mechanics of seeing, of thinking. Clearly, Light is Edwards’s most graphically terse and conceptually epigrammatic painting, but what does it say about an artist that can smoothly toggle between this work’s laconic thrust and the Baroque overflow of Sticker Shock (1999), an accumulation of three years of direct mail stickers affixed to the canvas with a logo that would not look out of place on the NASCAR circuit. Who is Edwards, and what is he responding to?
While a piece like Pop Music (1993), for instance, whose metrical lines read: “Pop Music Fast Food / Mass Consumer Bite Sized Sound / Helps Digestion Flow,” has a certain roguish verve, the indictment of a culture whose inbox is loaded with Viagra and diploma hawkers, debt consolidation and vacation giveaways, might seem too broad-based; the equivalent of shooting a very large fish in a very small barrel. I disagree. Edwards strikes me as a modern day version of Melville’s Bartleby, the ultimate product of New England Transcendentalism, who practices a version of civil disobedience not unlike Thoreau’s “Deliberate Living,” to stanch the daily deluge of pointless info. Bartleby’s response to anything that’s asked of him is a mild, but firm, “I would prefer not to,” and it’s not surprising in an age of open-cubicle anomie that Melville’s docile scrivener has returned, in Hollywood movie form, as a beleaguered file clerk. Bartleby, like Edwards, is the prototypical culture jammer, planting tacit seeds of revolution by refusing to conform to the mainstream’s expectations. Edwards, it’s true, has none of the passive-aggressive charm of a character who, these days, might find himself shredding documents after office hours, or hacking into a corporate mainframe, but after all, Bartleby is just that: a character. By contrast, Edwards’s contribution, it seems clear, must be affirmative and procreative, not withholding and nihilistic.
Thoreau himself said, “The greater part of what my neighbors call good, I believe in my soul to be bad. And if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” Edwards’s bad behavior, that is to say, his willful distortion of the semiotics of Madison Avenue, is a road almost certainly traveled solo, but pure information without meaning is a kind of decadent academic classicism that needs to be reproached and then countered. By short-circuiting the “information at a glance” protocols of web design, New Figuration in painting, and design models made popular by the quick glean of USA Today’s colored-coded bar graphs and pie charts, Edwards choreographs an experience for the viewer that pays off incrementally over time. The instant gestalt of much slick contemporary art, here, by contrast, unfolds in the opposite direction: Buddha-like mystery, a shock of partial recognition, a faint knowing smile, then a growing appreciation for the painting’s finely wrought superstructure. An “old soul” awakening, you might say, wise beyond years. David Hunt is an independent curator and writer living in New York. 2002