December 13, 2011

Until Covered in Ink Do Us Part

Little Friends of Printmaking; Madison, Wisconsin, USA

Author: John Foster

Topics: Handmade, Pattern & Palette, Studio Secrets

Upon graduating from the University of Wisconsin with their degrees in printmaking, this husband-and-wife team decided to stay put. After all, they had already begun to make a name for themselves as the Little Friends of Printmaking. Despite the heavy influence of a humorous visual language in James and Melissa Buchanan's work, their fine art background screams through in the details of their design and the craft of their printing.

This controlled looseness and an affinity for the process has allowed their young firm to draw a great deal of attention on the national stage. Their work has made its way into several collections and exhibitions in just three short years and has gone on a cross-country tour with their Canadian neighbors, Seripop.

Young upstarts that they are, the Buchanans are more than happy to take on the main point of criticism levied at the underground poster movement in the United States. "Designers we know deride the kind of poster art Little Friends does because of the frequent lack of hard direction from a client, and because we have an unusual amount of control over the content and the level of information that goes on the poster. The thing is that a blank piece of paper can be absolutely terrifying. No feedback! No direction! It's not all it's cracked up to be. It takes either a massive ego or a prodigious artistic talent to fill that blank piece of paper, and then it takes something still beyond that to fill it with something that really communicates," says Melissa Buchanan. We'll put them in the artistic talent category.

Material Culture

The Buchanans are well versed in both past and contemporary art, but it is tough to identify their greatest influences. They do concede that Cuban poster artist Muñoz Bachs is a "favorite in our household." It is clearer that they are "pathetically, desperately nuts for the material culture of the mid-twentieth century. It's hard to even imagine now a time when a package of meat or motor oil or whatever was covered with wild and energetic illustrations and hand-set type. What the hell happened to American visual culture? We love John and Faith Hubley and the whole UPA [United Productions of America; the reference is to a new wave of animation in film], or any cartoon that's so cheaply made that things scuttle sideways. George Grosz, Saul Steinberg, James Jarvis, Todd James." Combine a healthy dose of television, 1970s pop radio, and British acid folk music with weekly visits to the zoo, plus the tech savvy to design in Flash rather than an illustration software program, and you have the heady brew that is the Little Friends.

The Buchanans are inching closer to merging their commercial and fine art worlds as, "the design rags are paying a little more attention to posters than usual, and in the worlds of fine art and art history, there's an increased interest in material culture in general, in all historical periods, as art. This has led to a larger appreciation of illustrators and graphic designers who were, up to now, nothing more than minor cult figures in the history of art," says Buchanan.

Unlimited Possibilities

"Even at our most isolated, it's hard not to consider Little Friends part of a movement," says Buchanan. "We certainly look at a huge volume of contemporary work, and that's got to have some effect on our work; and if not our work, our desire to push the work further. We've done a lot of proselytizing on behalf of concert posters over the years, by speaking and by going out on the road with our Little Friends/Seripop touring exhibition, and we'll continue to do so in the future. We're less concerned with the poster movement as a social club than the poster as an art form with unlimited possibilities, but the community aspect has allowed us to meet a lot of interesting designers."

The poster has kept the Buchanans oddly in tune with technology and closer as a couple. James suffered a "horrific career-ending injury" to his wrist. He still wanted to be able to work on the same art as Melissa, and through trial and error they found he could draw using an old analog mouse on Flash MX software. In some ways, it is perfect that they use a program most often associated with glitzy interactive media for the most low-tech of tasks—drawing.

The Little Friends love the power of the poster. "It ought to look great from 20 feet but still reward a viewer's close inspection with something extra to look at once you've got it in your hands. It's got to be a big, bold statement that works for the entire audience. A good concert poster needs to speak to not only current but to all potential fans of the band. A poster is no place for in-jokes or design conceits. I mean, our background is fine art. We do our best to make a good silkscreen, and if it turns out to be a nice poster, well, bonus for us. We don't pretend to know a lot about design, but it's easy for even us to see when a poster just doesn't work." Don't worry, Little Friends—yours work.

Source: New Masters of Poster Design