Thursday, April 09, 2009

1970s Airbrush Art & Contemporary Graphic Design

It may not be conscious, but much of current art direction and graphic design has the aesthetic sensibilities of and relies more heavily on the pictorial conventions of artwork airbrushed onto the sides of vans in the 1970s than anything found in typography annuals or books on graphic design history. It's most apparent in web design and in advertising for consumer electronics and cars but it's visible everywhere, even fashion.

Institutionalized graphic design, like the art world, likes to tell a story of itself that traces influences and connects moments and works into a tidy, threaded history. As entertaining and as enlightening as they can be, they are more story than history. Airbrush art may be the most marginalized of visual arts, seen more as a craft or vocational art rather than as "design' or an important part of pop culture. As cheesy as it may be, its presence is hard to deny and it's place in the history of visual culture may have to be seriously revised.

The long-story night turn out to be something like: cave painting to wall murals to chapel ceilings to vans to electronic screen with all that nonsense about books and ink being a goofy thing that happened in between.

The visual elements and pictorial conventions found in airbrush art read like a checklist of today's visual cliches:

• Overly heroic subjects placed in oval vignettes within fantastic landscapes, deep space or floating in atmospheric backgrounds

• Reflections, textures, shiny surfaces, drops of water or splashes

• Bursts or radiating energy, lighting effects, rays of light and streaking colors

• The over-sensualization or sexualization of imagery and subject matter


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