Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Some People Can't Surf

Back in the day, when people read newspapers with some regularity, it was said that only something like 7% of the male population didn't read the sports section. I was part of the 7%. It was around the same time that my junior and senior high classmates began schlepping the sports section to homeroom that I began trolling the art and graphic design sections of bookstores and libraries hungry for some visual stimulation. Uneducated and unfamiliar with the art world, and with no finer appreciation for museums, I loved pulling out something that looked interesting and pouring over the glossy pages at images that inspired.

As a result, I became more aware of the graphic design of everyday life: the covers of alternative newspapers, the flyers for punk bands on the telephone poles, the zine piled in the entry ways of music stores. That love of graphics and the photocopier lead me to create zines and design letterpress books, and foundered a lifelong love of both high and low art. It also taught me that there was gold to be discovered in the bookshelves, if you knew where to look.

For my money, one of the best practitioners of 1990s was Art Chantry. While many (many) amateur graphic designers cut their teeth in the trenches of post-Sex Pistols punk rock show posters, Chantry bent and pushed and burned and mutilated the medium to its extremes. To be fair, what the Sex Pistols were doing was little more than aping the detournement of the French Situationists (who in turn were borrowing the Dadaist approach to found collage) so there is a long-standing tradition of image manipulation within art and politics. Nonetheless, Chantry took the low-budget, high concept approach to word and image and put a stamp on it that was at once sophisticated in it's thievery while appearing completely naive.

Some People Can't Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry is the first survey of Chantry's work and is the sort of thing a teen might find pretty darn inspirational. Based in the Pacific Northwest, one could argue that he was the graphic face of the grunge movement. His work for Sub Pop and Estrus records, among many other small bands and labels, will be readily familiar to fans of music from that era. Unlike other artists who spring from pop culture, like Shepard Fairey and his Obey industries, Chantry has no single iconic image or style yet there is a unique look to all his work that nonetheless feels part of a whole.

"An art book? That counts as reading?" Yes, I admit, it is tempting to pick up a book like this and simply look at the pictures. But I believe that one of the mysteries of the adult world to teens is in the arts where often we only know what's presented to us (or covered in the tabloids). How an artist lives and creates, what inspires them and influences them, tells a younger reader a lot about what it means to follow that path. Outsiders, often living on the margins, artists have to learn how to improvise not only with their art but with survival. Sometimes all it takes is a book like this to ignite the spark in a reader's mind: Oh, yeah, someone had to create that? And how did they do it? And what were their influences? A book that opens the door to questions and perhaps inspires a reader into action counts by me.
An artists' retrospective, like Some People Can't Surf, reads like a biography with documentation. Instead of photos of the subject posing on vacation abroad we see their growth as an artist visually while reading about their struggles to meet deadlines and working with no budgets. They're like a picture book where the words and pictures compliment each other, and provide a window into the world of a working artist.

Chantry has been exhibited in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, The Smithsonian, and the Louvre. That's a trifecta in my book.

Some People Can't Surf:
The Graphic Design of Art Chantry

by Julie Lasky
Chronicle Books

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