Sunday, January 29, 2012

Peter Mendelsund, Damien Hirst, and color systems


This month, I read the last volume of Osamu Tezuka's 17-book manga series Black Jack, saw one of the ten Damien Hirst exhibitions that is currently running at every Gagosian Gallery in the world, and began reading Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet for a review for about.com. What do these have in common? I think one can link these three elements through their design aesthetics, which each explore color systems and sequences.

Firstly, the Tezuka and Marcus books are both designed by the excellent Peter Mendelsund, who works with Pantheon, Knopf, and one of my favorite presses, Vertical. While the examples here are very color-oriented, Mendelsund is a lot more versatile and has much more to offer (the excellent artwork for Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo's thrilleds come to mind), but for the sake of this post I'm going to specifically focus on his "color studies" (for lack of a better word).

I featured some other editions of Black Jack in previous posts, but I don't believe I conveyed the scope of Vertical and Mendelsund's massive publishing project. This is a seventeen-volume series of comics, and I believe it started over three years ago at a time when Vertical wasn't even sure they'd have the means to see the series to its end. In its design, Mendelsund managed to make each volume look fresh and also relevant to the time of year the book was released. Volumes that come out in the summer were light and pastoral, while winter volumes were more bold and their colors less complimentary. By looking at the design of the whole series at once, readers could potentially draw connections between each volume's color scheme, and see how they connect to other volumes or the stories within them. Naysayers could claim these are essentially random assortments of color swatches, but I'd rather believe they stand for something more. Perhaps they started that way, and grew to mean something bigger as the design was further developed.

(The last volume is especially fun, as the 2x2 grid of Black Jack 1-16 evolved into something resembling TV color bars. Also, note the die-cut cover!)


Mendelsund also made the excellent artwork for Ben Marcus's kick-in-the-stomach of a new novel, The Flame Alphabet. Following a similar style, Mendelsund works a network of flame-like color triangles into a well-balanced system.

Mendelsund has two blogs that are worth bookmarking, Jacket Mechanical and a more standard portfolio page.

Yesterday, I saw the Damien Hirst show at the Madison Avenue Gagosian Gallery, and much to the shock of a lot of my friends I genuinely like the work. But, I find it's the same reason I like Peter Mendelsund's work with Black Jack and The Flame Alphabet. I believe that a discussion of Hirst's effect on the art market and what it means to be a "true artist" will consistently result in the same grumbling conclusion, but these Spot Paintings appeal to me on a simple one-note level that I very much enjoy. Unless you've already decided against there being any merit to Hirst's spots, it's impossible not to draw relations between his colors when standing in front of one of his pieces. After three floors of Spot Paintings, my eyes did start to strain, but I was amazed to see how certain darker tones emerged while the lighter spots faded into the white background. They began to feel more like a geoboard than anything else:

On a final Damien Hirst note, Other Criteria (Hirst's practically cash-printing production company) intends to put out a 1000 page catalogue to all the Spot Paintings. And, for all the reasons above, I'm really excited about this. I'm certain it'll be a maddening, beautiful book, and based on my copy of Hirst's "Superstition" catalogue, it'll have great production values and become quite a collectible piece. You collectors out there might want to point your browsers this way.

Currently reading:
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
Ulysses by James Joyce
Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas

Currently listening to:
"Mausmix" by John Maus

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