The traditional book was torn into separate pages, enlarged a hundredfold, colored for greater intensity, and brought into the street…6

The advent of the poster heralded the destruction of the book, and with it a whole bourgeois culture of interiority. In 1926, when El Lissitzky proclaimed the onset of his new order, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” abuzz with the technologies of “secondary orality,” was still a ways off, but already it was taking shape on the horizon.7

Ruppersberg’s “novel that writes itself” concerns the multitude rather than the isolated subject; it is written, read, and then rewritten en masse. In the gallery, this “novel” is displayed all at once in a dense grid of posters hung side-to-side and floor-to-ceiling, a democratic profusion that is greeted much like the “store-front plane”: distractedly, in passing, and with an eye that skims along instead of probing. Still, here and there, something—a statement, a slogan, a saying—stands out. To read it is to speak it, and in turn to memorize it. A text that comes apart in this way into a collection of brief attention-begging phrases inevitably turns concrete, poetic.

Concrete Poetry

However, artists in America today do not as a rule command a broad public, and very few would imagine, as El Lissitzky once did, that their work could possibly serve the cause of revolution. Especially in Los Angeles, it would seem that the principal affect of the street poster is profound alienation. It is one thing to draw from the public at large a potential buyer for one’s goods—as most Colby posters are designed to do—but it is quite another to aspire to generalized understanding. Judging from the evidence on hand in the Colby company files, their artistic clientele has flatly renounced any such hopes from the outset. Their works are for the most part complex and cryptic, wholly accessible to only a small group of like-minded individuals, and mostly baffling, or at least challenging, to the rest. For starters, the poster that has nothing to sell but the words it is made of constitutes a troubling infraction of the economic order, and when these words are themselves troubling, that doubly exacerbates the problem. Problematic is exactly what most of these artist-designed posters want to be, however. What they seek to communicate across the board is a question that becomes lodged in memory in order to disturb: “What is this?”

As with Ruppersberg’s Howl, Eve Fowler’s recent series of Colby posters proceed from a torn-apart book. Here, the source is Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, from which the artist has culled a series of stand-alone quotes such as “a difference of very little difference” and “the difference is spreading.” When their context is known, such statements may perhaps be understood as a comment on gay identity and the way it is processed within the straight world. Further, one may assume that Fowler’s appropriation of Stein reflects critically on Ruppersberg’s appropriation of Ginsberg, which, on Ruppersberg’s part, occurs without much concern for sexual politics. The works of both of these artists conduct a sensitive dialogue with literature, and with each other, but because they take the form of street posters, both also implicitly address a much larger field of operations where the various intricacies of their interactions will simply be vaporized. For an audience unfamiliar with either Stein or Ginsberg, Ruppersberg or Fowler, or their respective sexual orientations, whatever remains to be read on these posters—that is, the questions or problems they pose—will be instantly dismissed from thought, or else gain an insidious purchase.

Other works are less equivocal, aiming for a direct hit to the psyche. The relentlessly antagonistic exclamations committed to print by Cali Thornhill DeWitt, for instance, openly aspire to traumatize or incite their viewer/reader. “Burn It Down” reads one text from 2012 against a color field that transitions from green at the bottom to yellow and then red at the top. Behind the words, these colors summon up the vision of a burning landscape, a grassy plain in flames that turn the sky above a hellish hue. At the same time, these colors relate to those of so many African flags, and thereby place the destructive command of the foregrounded words squarely in the context of racial uprising. One thinks of Los Angeles’s long history of racial inequity and turmoil, from the Watts riots to the events that followed the police beating of Rodney King, but even as these readings are insistently prompted, they cannot be assigned to the poster itself, which remains to the end strategically noncommittal. Who exactly is being incited to do the burning, and what exactly is “it” that is to be burned? Significantly, the color palette of DeWitt’s work has not been composed by the artist, but rather pulled from the standardized menu of the Colby company as an option more generally reserved for the promoters of reggae festivals and the like. In their artistic repurposing, such transparent attempts to address one’s social constituency are rendered conspicuous, and in the process, problematized.

Even when the message appears to be straightforward, benign, ingratiating, or emotionally generous, as with a poster by Emilie Halpern that reads “I Love You” (Valentine, 2012), doubts immediately arise as to an underlying motive. Again, one can only wonder who is addressing whom, who this “I” and “You” might in fact be. And if these terms are to remain essentially empty, then why are they being so intimately related? At first glance, the words might recall a past moment of hippie communion, but in their resolutely non-psychedelic treatment—Halpern bypassed Colby’s Day-Glo spectrum in favor of sober black on white—they also suggest the ensuing corporate takeover of a countercultural cachet. Aside from these desultory observations, however, what this poster provokes above all is a structural take. It is a two-sided work, with the letters that comprise its message evenly divided between recto and verso, so that neither side can be read without help from the other. If any real “love” is being celebrated here, then it is that of ink for paper and paper for ink.

Adios

Marshall McLuhan’s dictum, “the medium is the message,” would read very differently on a Colby poster than the printed page on which it was composed.8When it is bound between the covers of a book, the paper ground tends to disappear behind the words, allowing their meaning to pass swiftly through matter and into thought. On the poster, by contrast, the medium is this medium, and the message is this message. And in order to receive this message, one must be physically there, in the presence of the poster itself. This seemingly obvious point bears repeating today, when so much of the information that we receive arrives, dematerialized, through the electronic ether. In the wake of the so-called “digital turn,” the insistent thing-ness of the Colby print stands out that much more sharply. One will notice, for instance, that it is endowed with a remarkably substantial cardboard ground, no doubt to withstand the corrosive elements that it must contend with outside, on the street. Moreover, observed more closely—as on the walls of a gallery, let’s say—it is revealed that this underlying thickness serves to support, without buckling, the generous coats of colored ink deposited atop. These layers of pigment—screened, sprayed, and letter-pressed onto the ground—constitute a richly textured surface, a patina recording the hands-on process of the poster’s production, a palimpsest.

In the increasingly dematerialized “autoscape,” where advertising is applied to buses and buildings in thin coats of adhesive film and billboards are animated with computer screen pixels, the Colby poster has become a bulky artifact of a prior age of communications. This state of being constitutes its final communiqué, and it is one that fulfills the promise with which it emerged: the promise of aesthetic redemption. More than ever before, these “objects on the landscape demanding of the eye” assume in and of themselves the quality of art, and it is this very condition of aestheticized thing-ness that presently threatens their continued occupation of the sphere of everyday life. To a greater or lesser extent, the artists that collaborated with Colby all saw it coming, and, right from the start, all were instrumental in taking it there. In the world of art, as opposed to everyday life, it comes as no surprise that what is most essential to the thing itself will pass largely unnoticed and will not be fully revealed until the end. A foundational insight of the aesthetic theory passed down from Romanticism is that radiant beauty is only attained in the shadow of death. “Adios” reads the very last poster that C. R. Stecyk III produced with the Colby Poster Printing Company, which closed its doors to the public on January 1, 2013. This stoic salute from the artist to a medium that, throughout his career, he had identified as his own, is effectively returned by the poster itself. “Adios” it says back to the artist and to whoever else happens across it, secure in the knowledge that when it has disappeared from our sight it will be finally recognized: “So that’s what that was!”

Jan Tumlir is an art writer who lives in Los Angeles. He is a contributing editor of X-TRA; his articles appear regularly in Artforum, Aperture, Flash Art, and occasionally in Art Review and Frieze. He has written catalog essays for such artists as Bas Jan Ader, Uta Barth, John Divola, Jorge Pardo, Pae White, and most recently, Cyprien Gaillard. Tumlir teaches art history and critical theory at Art Center College of Design. His book on the artist Matthew Brannon, Hyenas Are…, was published by Mousse in 2011.

Tumlir co-curated, with Christopher Michlig and Brian Roettinger, In the Good Name of the Company, an exhibition of artworks and ephemera produced by or with the Colby Poster Printing Company. The exhibition took place at ForYourArt gallery, Los Angeles, from February 23 to March 23, 2013.

Footnotes

  1. El Lissitzky, “Our Book,” from Gutenberg-Jahrbuch (1926–27), quoted in T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea (New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1999), 29.
  2. Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village” in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962). There, he predicts that the individualistic mind-set brought on by the advent of print culture would be counteracted by electronic media, which, according to him, effects a return to the hive-mind communications of an earlier, tribal stage of human evolution, but now on a global scale. Twenty years later, Walter Ong would define this new network as one of “secondary orality” in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982). Accordingly, mankind passes from a culture of “orality” to “literacy” to “secondary orality.”
  3. Marshall McLuhan introduced this concept in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), where he argues, “The content of any medium is always another medium.”
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