Graphic Convergence: Drawing Together Ed Fella and Geoff McFetridge

Two lines align: you can't deny the pleasure of the words taken together. Two lines. A line. Align. And it's not just pretty: the lines and their alignment constitute curator Michael Worthington's central conceit—that the work of designers Ed Fella and Geoff McFetridge, who are separated by more than 30 years in age, as well as by method, worldview, technology, institutional foundation and culture, does indeed come together in interesting and productive ways, ways that move beyond mere chronology or the influence of one generation on another. “When you put the two of you end-to-end it forms a line that makes sense,” Worthington said in an interview with the artists. And his show, “Two Lines Align: Drawings and Graphic Design by Ed Fella and Geoff McFetridge” on view at REDCAT gallery in downtown Los Angeles through April 6, offers a huge collection of work spanning 40 years in support of his contention. But you wouldn't think so at first.

Ed Fella at the exhibit opening and some of his featured work.

At the exhibit's start, visitors find display cases featuring dozens of sketchbooks by the 70-year-old Fella, who graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1987 after a successful career as a commercial artist, and is now on the faculty at CalArts where he's been teaching for more than 20 years. In one book on one page, a collage: the body of a boy, the head of a girl, a building, a plane. Dated 1983, the slight but nimble piece suggests the nascent '80s deconstructive impulse that would explode a few years later, and references Russian and German collage works 50 years prior. More striking than the piece's combined clarity and complexity, though, is how the sketchbooks feel so precious, their colorful, delightful images sparking a warm nostalgia and a desire to touch, to feel the layers of paper, the grease of crayons, the smudge of pencil.

Geoff McFetridge's work on display and the artist at the opening.

Moving back along a wall of classic Fella posters, featuring his iconic lettering style which initially appears casual but is scrupulously composed, visitors come upon a large box housing a ton of stuff: hats, skateboards, posters, magazines, CDs, T-shirts and many other things, all of it emblematic of a generation and all marked by simple line drawings, silhouettes and graphics. The style shares the hand-drawn vernacular lettering that echoes Fella's work, but there's also a rosy haze of '70s kitsch, too, that feels cool but well framed—not critically but affectionately. This is work by Geoff McFetridge, who graduated from CalArts in 1995, founded the design studio Champion Graphics the following year, returned to CalArts as a faculty member and is now one of the most celebrated designers today (see him in the upcoming documentaryBeautiful Losers). Unlike Fella's sketchbooks, McFetridge's box of things is not precious so much as sincere, any solicitous critique softened by felicitous appropriation and recontextualization. Like many of his contemporaries, McFetridge mines the cultural materials around him, and through a kind of mimicry at once celebrates material culture while remaking it to suit his own needs. Referencing the clarity of children's books, McFetridge says he yearns for a similar simplicity and directness.

Untitled work by Fella, 2007.

Rather than blithely denoting that hoary divide said to distinguish a critical, art-inflected practice and the more obviously commercial work, Worthington instead posits a vector that unites the two eras and directions. It brings together the deconstructive urge of the '80s evident in Fella's dazzling posters—which refute an entire generation's rules and methods—and the clarity and jaunty acceptance of commodification suggested by McFetridge's work. Rather than mere capitulation, from a high ground of disaffected resistance, artful ambiguity and transgression to the lower ground of corporate compliance, the vector instead maps the contours of a sociocultural shift that no longer demands outright antipathy but instead invites coy participation—on new terms. “Times change and cultures change,” says Fella in the interview. “Attitudes change.”

Installation by McFetridge, 2008.

The lines blur, then, taking the shape of a Möbius strip where art and commerce, fine art practice and graphic design, align on a surface that itself shifts in response to needs. The analogy is not capricious, as the winding strip itself conjures formal elements evident in the work of both designers. McFetridge frequently uses lines to conjure impossible drawings: a hand that becomes a landscape, for example; a single, continuous edge that morphs from border to furrow to edge. And the lines of an earlier generation—lines you wouldn't cross, lines between this and that—converge and take shape for a newer generation.

Works by Fella (top) and McFetridge in “Two Lines Align.”

Sean Cubitt writes eloquently about vectors in his 2005 bookThe Cinema Effect, which divides the history of cinema into phases, one of them characterized by the vector. Considering these historical phases, he writes: “It is no longer a matter of recognition, of deciphering what is already encoded. Rather it is a matter of reinterpreting, of adding a new spin to a trajectory that has not yet realized itself.” As critics and curators begin to assess and chronicle the latest decade of graphic design history, they'll need new models to accommodate new needs. To its credit, Worthington's curatorial agenda eschews easy side-by-side comparison—which would still have been fascinating given the rich bodies of work considered—as well as a simplistic historical presentation that would observe the formal boundaries that do indeed seem to divide the two generations represented by Fella and McFetrdge. He is not examining a history so much as creating a way to conjure history. Indeed, Worthington spins a trajectory that reinterprets not just two designers and two generations but the possibilities of design history—acknowledging not only dialectical evolution, but the need to be attentive to the specifics of cultural context and the creative force of interpretation itself. As Fella says of the progression that brings the end of postmodern critique up against a new generation's striving for authenticity: “That's a very 20th-century trajectory, I think, in art and design.” He adds, “I can also see that as part of a shift that we both epitomize: something ending and something beginning but still being a continuum.” And it's this notion—of history as continuum, as a trajectory always in the process of becoming, like a line in motion—that Worthington's show manages to capture.

All photos by Scott Groller. © CalArts 2008