BOTH LOCAL FONT guru Chank (Charles Anderson) and the Minneapolis-based design cooperative Spunk (led by founder Jeff Johnson) have made their monosyllabic names--and their money--using technology to design letters and logos and disseminate them around the world. Their joint show "American Alphabeticians" (opening this Friday at Macalester College)--the first official venture for each into "fine art"--is as much an outgrowth of the computer age as it is a rebellion against it.
"Some of the best dialogue I've ever had has a lot to do with the communication that the Web has allowed us to do," says Johnson, who has designed logos for Fruitopia and Diet Coke, among others. His bearish frame takes on a boyish exuberance as he conducts an impromptu tour of the exhibition, chattering affectionately about how pop culture today connects people throughout the world.
But communication in the Information Age has its dreary side. Ask Chank, whose computer-generated alphabets (which he peddles on his Web site, www.chank.com) adorn everything from running shoes to soda cans to Prince album covers to, yes, City Pages. "I am so sick of working on the computer," he says, rolling Gen X eyes heavenward. "I just pick up my brush. It's not perfect. It doesn't come out of a computer. It's got humanity."
Which is not to say that the computer won't play a crucial part in the Chank-Spunk fine art endeavor. After the show closes, the artworks will be on sale at Chank's site, and Spunk's (www.spunknation.com), and possibly the eBay online auction house (www.ebay.com).
As with most celebrations of pop culture, sensory overload abounds at "American Alphabeticians." Perhaps the giant jagged-edged, heavy metal S near the door commands your attention first. Or, across the room, the even larger and much more colorful painting of a big blue boy against a landscape embedded with seemingly random letters. This is a slice of a new reality, where letters and words no longer simply carry a message. They are the message.
"The alphabet is the art," Chank posits. "We don't do naked ladies. We don't do fruit. You've taken the words and smashed them into little bits."
The exhibition leads the viewer through a pastiche of letters, drawn, painted, cut, and twisted. Some of Chank's works are brightly hued combinations of letters and figures, such as the aforementioned blue boy, which is a cartoonish parody of Gainesborough's famous painting. His smaller, black-and-white drawings showcase and reshape the alphabet, piling, for instance, abstract sketches of letters on top of each other. Johnson, in a nod to the heavy plates of Old World typography, cuts and writes his letters on metal slabs, discs, and cylinders, many of which, he says, were salvaged from pieces of machinery on his family's farm near Fargo.
Stare for long enough at the four wire sculptures in the front atrium and you may just come to understand the idea behind the exhibit. Johnson has shaped wire into letters that swirl and stretch in three dimensions. "It's like drawing in space," says the artist. "How far can you push the letter form?" Pretty far, it turns out. In a kind of M.C. Escher-meets-Sesame Street optical illusion, you may find yourself squinting and furrowing your brow for a few minutes before--aha!--you comprehend what's being spelled out.
Actually, Sesame Street played a significant role in the artists' development. Chank, who grew up in Tampa and alighted in Minnesota to study fine art at Macalester, and Johnson, who was raised on a Fargo farm and learned about art and design at Moorhead State University, were both born in 1969--the year of Big Bird and Co.'s television debut. And their work recalls that show's googly-eyed plush puppets, who break words apart, then smash them back together as they teach young minds to read. That idea--the letter as individual, the letter as art--is at the core of "American Alphabeticians."