Shape shifters

Peter Blake, interviewed by Mark Ellen at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival, spoke about the choices on offer when he was training after the Second World War and opted for fine art over commercial art. But it’s no surprise that his subsequent career has straddled the divide, absorbing pop culture into his work and taking on commissions for album covers from the Beatles to Band Aid.

From a book under review in Grafik 184 (Printmaking: A Contemporary Perspective, By Paul Coldwell, Published by Black Dog): “It’s safe to say that any aspiring graphic designer is going to have to learn a fair bit about printmaking — the two practices are very closely linked. It’s strange, then, that this student-friendly overview of printmaking contains hardly any examples of graphic design at all. Instead, it’s very much a fine art focused affair

It may be that technology has moved graphic design away from craft, away from making a mark (how many designers find that the second question is put to them first — not “What do you design?” but “What software do you use?”).

In Modern Painters (April 2010), artists are asked ‘How do you think advances in technology will influence painting, if at all?’ Eric Aho believes, on the one hand, that greater access to information will aid certain painters to produce new things, “On the other hand I’m content to stick to painting purely as painting — a physical experience of nature and the world. I’m more inclined to rely on my own memory and keep creating on canvases using oil-paint and brushes in the old-fashioned way, as free from the deluge of information as possible.

Critic and curator Michael Duncan adds: “Nothing techno will ever beat oil-paint. You can’t feel HDTV. You can’t smell a pixel.

Juhani Pallasmaa, in Eyes of the Skin: Architecture of the Senses, argues that too much architecture is skewed towards vision rather than a balance of all the senses. In two extended essays he brings his experience to bear — architecture, graphic design, urban planning and exhibitions — emphasizing the importance of identity, sensorial experience and tactility (“The door handle is the handshake of the building”; “The powerful smell of seaweed makes one sense the depth and weight of the sea, and it turns any prosaic harbour town into the image of the lost Atlantis.”)

This balance of senses is also borne out by the poet Seamus Heaney’s elegy for David Hammond “The door was open and the house was dark”, where the building seems to retain a presence of mind, a quality of silence.

Heaney has a phrase, “the music of what happens”, a fair description of composer John Cage’s work, 4’33’’, for any instrument — the performer must not play for the entire duration of the piece, which consists of the natural sounds of the performer, the audience, the building and the outside environment.

Prior to the work, Cage had visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University (an externally sound-proofed room, designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room rather than reflecting them as echoes).

Cage expected total silence, but heard two sounds — his nervous system in operation, and his blood in circulation. He concluded that silence was impossible. A year later he composed 4’33”.

All of these practitioners in fine art, graphic design, architecture, or composition (be it poetry or music, painting or printmaking), are engaged in a design for living, in all senses. The boundaries between disciplines become more flexible, shifting shape until someone like Juhani Pallasmaa says “too much”, or the ear is explored by poets and musicians for what is “under”-heard.

I want to return to my true discipline, graphics, but I increasingly feel that I’m taking the long way home. And where do I start?


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One Response to “Shape shifters”

  1. gregsweetnam Says:

    An enjoyable link from the BBC site, if you have 4’33” to spare:

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