I shot the serif

Mar 17, 2004 at 12:00 am

Elliot Earls is king of a world most can’t fathom.

The head of Cranbrook’s graphic design department is a beloved hero, a star, in an international universe of art-school designers, of trendsetters and their hip design magazines, of computer geeks obsessed with fonts and typefaces.

A Blueprint magazine writer recently anointed Earls “the hottest designer in America.” That’s a powerful seat. Designers are the people who create the images we see every day, like it or not, in Wal-Mart and Target ads, in Rolling Stone and Time magazine layouts, on album covers, on cigarette and soap cartons — on every product we buy. Graphic designers are the visual masters of mass communication, and their influence cannot be overestimated.

On a recent trip to Cranbrook Art Museum, Earls appears battered and beaten at the entrance to his exhibit, Bull and Wounded Horse. His eye is nearly swollen shut; his nose is fat and deformed. He’s angry and snarling to show ugly teeth as he holds up his fist.

“Go Ahead Crucify Me Goddamn It,” proclaims the computer-altered photographic work.

Earls is a maverick out to prove that he’s an artist, a fine artist, and that graphic designers can be much more than the “handmaidens of industry,” as he puts it. “Graphic design as a field has been underachieving,” he says.

In such a role, he’s prepped for a fight.

As he walks me though Bull and Wounded Horse, he’s charming and energized — the kind of person whose mind moves so quickly his mouth and body speed to follow. The show is hardly what you’d expect from a graphic designer, a hodgepodge of works ranging in styles, from an egg tempura painting to computer-generated and altered photographic images to ink, clay and gold on hardboard, from abstract cubism to classic formalism.

Earls says he’s trying to follow in the footsteps of his childhood hero, Picasso, who mastered many styles on his way to eminence.

“He wasn’t a one-trick pony,” says Earl. “I want to blur the distinctions, the greatest designers did that.”

The two most compelling works in the show are large, high-quality images of two young black men, posing melodramatically for the camera. The computer-manipulated works use words and symbols to comment on hip-hop and ghetto culture, bling bling, blood and money. They use symbols of Christianity, Judaism and Islam along with drops of blood adorned by reflections of diamond-covered dollar signs. They are glossy, intriguing and offensive.

In “Abraham-n-Isaac,” it’s almost as if Earls is suggesting that black men are fools for exaggerating ghetto culture for a mass consumer audience, or that black people in hip hop are playing a latter-day “Amos and Andy” show for white culture. The two men in the work, presented as brothers, play dramatically to the camera though one is killing the other.

It seems certain that most of the people who view the works will be white or upper middle class, creating a double-message between the men in the pictures, the artist and the viewer. Earls acknowledges that few of his students or his audience are people of color; I’d be surprised if any spent time in the hood.

But that’s the point, Earls explains. Art isn’t meant to be read like a text, but rather to spark discussion, emotion and thought. It’s the responsibility of the artist to address social and political issues, and race and religion are the eminent issues in America, he says.

“PC mongering. … Why can’t the white man get into discussions of race?” Earls says he told a student.

“I’d like to think that my work is quintessentially and extremely anti-racist and anti-fundamentalist,” he says. “I try to hit people as hard as I possibly can. It’s supposed to be confusing. Shock and awe …”

“I’m trying to shake things up and to be courageous,” says Earls.

In the world of typography, the fonts Earls has created — Dysphasia, Dysplasia, Dyslexia and Blue Eyeshadow, among others — are sensations. The funky, hand-drawn and sometimes hideous letters and symbols incorporate cartoon styles as well as Japanese, ancient Greek and Sanskrit influences. His fonts are individual artworks, and sometimes illegible.

Bull and Wounded Horse displays another facet of Earls’ skills as a painter and craftsman. It proves that he can create works of art that are beautiful, finely executed and conceptually challenging — as well as somewhat useless in a commercial context.

But that’s not why he’s reaching iconic status from Lisbon to New York.

Design superstar

Earls is a multimedia savant. He made a DVD movie, in which he acts. He composes music. He created a boot out of 24-carat gold (Earls obviously has no problem obtaining high-end materials) that allows him to play a robotic steel string guitar (also of his creation) while he plays lead guitar, sings, raps, plays harmonica and speaks in a performance art show that is both engrossing and bizarre.

His music is soulful electronic pop, with a tinge of country, hip hop and rock. He augments his performances with smoke and light machines he operates and 40-foot-tall screens playing his videos.

In cities across America and Europe, his presence draws hundreds of onlookers: Some 600 people turned out for his Ann Arbor performance and Earls nearly caused a stampede at a London university, according to media reports.

His audiovisual CD-ROM, Throwing Apples at the Sun, is simply amazing — a cacophonic mélange of Earls’ posters, fonts and graphics, with interactive pop-up images and messages accompanied by his strange and sometimes hilarious spoken-word monotone and grabbing music beats.

As a designer who makes art from graphics and composes music to accompany it, Earls is at the helm of a multimedia pop art movement, and galleries from New York to Paris to Venice are increasingly embracing the trend. After performing at HERE art space in New York, Earls won the prestigious Manhattan Wooster Group’s Emerging Artist award in 1999.

“Elliot is a bit of an enfante terrible,” says Joe Houston, curator of exhibitions at Cranbrook Museum. “He’s breaking all the rules. You don’t often get to break rules in design because you work for clients. Because he’s in the art world and because he’s a teacher, he has that luxury. I think that will affect the commercial world. It’s the vanguard of what’s to come.”

Like designers in high fashion and the automotive industries, who create prototypes that are beautiful but hardly functional, Earls is creating styles and forms that might trickle down into the mass market. It’s artists like Earls who set the trends.

“His studio is a laboratory; he’s looking for answers,” says Houston. “It’s a lesson for his students: design doesn’t start with the computer. It starts with the fundamentals of art.”

It’s a long way to come for a self-described Catholic school jock from Cincinnati who got his Cranbrook MFA in 1995. It’s no surprise that he can be over the top. At times, his music and rapping/singing/talking stray into gratuitousness. His abstract DVD film, Catfish, might illustrate Earls’ Achilles heel: he’s no actor. The film is sometimes overbearing with a sense of its own worth, and seems like an attempt to create a campy B-movie that fails to hit its mark. Yet it’s worth seeing, if for nothing else than a skit in which Earls’ plays a late-night cable salesman hawking his own posters and fonts.

“I think he’s got a lot to prove,” says David Redhead, a design writer and the editor of Grand Designs magazine, the Dwell of the U.K. “It looks great, but what’s it all mean?”

Redhead says he’s impressed with Earls’ art, which is “the cutting edge of the avant-garde.” But he doesn’t see him as paving design’s new road.

“I don’t see many people with the talent to do what he does,” says Redhead. “He’s a teacher. He’s getting people to think. He’s made himself very popular. He’s a hero.”

A new prophet?

Maybe Earls is the prophet that graphic design has been seeking since 1964. That year, an upstart designer in London challenged those in the field to take responsibility for the role they play in a consumer society, to apply their design skills to worthwhile ventures, to not play into the hands of manipulative ad campaigns. The 1964 First Things First Manifesto by Ken Garland was a sensation in the graphics world. Garland went on to ply his skill for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, among other ventures. But, of course, the big world of advertising continued to grow and to associate products with all that’s good in life, stamping brands into the social consciousness.

In 2000, Adbusters and six other design magazines released an updated version of Garland’s declaration, basically stating that “too much design energy is being spent to promote pointless consumerism, and too little to helping people understand an increasingly complex and fragile world,” writes design critic Rick Poynor in Adbusters.

Though the millennial manifesto is popular among the academic design community, its effect remains unclear. Graphic designers, for the most part, work for companies that sell products, or ad firms that help companies sell things. If a designer works for Nike, a high-paying spot, the job includes making ads that convince people that Nike products are intrinsic to a revolutionary form of athleticism and necessary for a healthy, successful life.

That’s where Earls comes in. He is determined to create socially conscious and beautiful design art, to spark discussions about race and religion and war and consumerism within his insular world. He creates art for art’s sake.

His résumé begins with a boast that he was fired from his “real” jobs in graphic design. He was ousted from Elektra Records, he explains, because he refused to airbrush pictures for the European release of The Eagles Greatest Hits; he rebelled against the “Michael Bolton effect.”

He does work for money, though. He recently did commercials for The Cartoon Network and commissions for Elektra and Emigre digital type foundry, among others. Emigre, a cutting-edge force in typography, sells Earls’ fonts, which are also advertised on his CD-ROM, Throwing Apples. (They cost $70 each.)

But Earls seems uninterested in commerce. Much of his work is impractical.

That’s disturbing to some graphic artists.

I showed Throwing Apples to three designer friends. The first loved what she saw, said she adored the “organic colors” and quirky, almost grotesque forms of Earls’ fonts and images. She said it was the first graphic design she’d seen that she would consider fine art, created by hand. She talked about art “purists” who deride graphics as something anyone with the right program can do. She views Earls as the retort to that denouncement.

The other two designers were less inspired, even irritated at Earls’ CD. It looks pretty and cool, one said, but what’s the point, what’s the use? Design needs to be readable, a mode of communication. And Earls didn’t invent the wheel, he said. Countless designers create artwork; just look at David Carson, for instance. The other contended that graphic design is about money, and who would pay for Earls’ stuff?

Earls is in tune with the criticism. Back in his studio at Cranbrook, after walking through his show, he hands me his puppy, an adorable warm slobbering creature that makes it even harder to catch all the design impresario has to say. His studio wall is covered with drawings, scattered about is art in progress. I’m drawn to a page hung on the wall, a drawing, that seems to sum it all up, asking: “How does this shit relate to anything anyone gives a fuck about?”

Earls answers his own question.

“There is value in aesthetic beauty,” says Earls. “I want to make art.”


Bull and Wounded Horse shows at the Cranbrook Art Museum through March 28. Cranbrook is located at 39221 Woodward Ave. in Bloomfield Hills. Call 248-645-3323. To get Earls’ performance schedule or to buy his CD, DVD or fonts, visit theapolloprogram.com.

Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]