Poster Children

A basement print shop in St. Paul creates bold propaganda for latter-day rock

The music poster has had a number of heydays and a steady succession of pioneers, from the late-19th-century work of Jules Cheret and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in France to the classic productions of American standard-bearers the Hatch Brothers in Nashville and the lysergic rococo of the San Francisco Bay area graphic artists in the 1960s. Such folks helped create the iconography for their time and place, whether it was the dizzying cabaret world of belle époque Paris; the sweat-soaked, polymorphous mythos of the American South, with its culture of carnivals and salvation and its hodgepodge of regional musical styles; or the Summer of Love excesses of the San Francisco music scene.

The chaotic anti-aesthetic of punk rock essentially deconstructed the rock poster, or at least replaced it with a roughhewn and anarchic complement to the whole DIY ethos of the scene. The new style was fine-tuned by Raymond Pettibon, whose stark and jarring work was one of the signatures of the SST label and exerted a baleful influence on a lost generation of zine illustrators and punk artists. Today Pettibon's work has moved from telephone poles to museum walls and the collections of wealthy art investors.

You wouldn't necessarily know it in the Twin Cities, but the rock poster as fine art has been making a comeback in recent years. Throw a rock these days and there's a good chance you'll hit a graphic designer with a kickass record collection. The explosion of talented designers who could hold their own in the most arcane of indie record-store dialogues has resulted in a renaissance of bright and striking poster art, sophisticated stuff that uses all the convenient tools of computer technology while maintaining the basic gut aesthetics of the best agitprop. For the most part, the new breed of music-poster artists eschews the cool formality of much commercial design work, or at least leavens it with the zeal of the true fan and an artist's appreciation for old-school craft.

Those seeking exemplars of this renaissance need look no further than Michael Byzewski and Dan Ibarra, recent Twin Cities transplants from Madison, who since August have been creating beautiful hand-screened music posters out of the basement of the St. Paul house they share with Byzewski's wife and a couple of cats. Doing business as Aesthetic Apparatus, Byzewski and Ibarra are the sole proprietors and employees of a design studio that is creating, among other things, some of the most distinct and distinguished posters in a now seriously crowded field, all of whom are jockeying for attention and business from the same pool of clubs, artists, labels, and promoters. They've already done posters and design work for (among others) local luminaries Har Mar Superstar, Mark Mallman, and Atmosphere, as well as such national acts as Wire, Mission of Burma, and the Meat Puppets.

Aesthetic Apparatus productions tend to blur the distinction between art and design, craft and construction. For two guys in their 20s, Byzewski and Ibarra are impressively well-versed in the history of graphic design. Their work is influenced equally by long-dead legends and contemporary peers, from pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol to modern trailblazers like Saul Bass and the Hatch Brothers and punk pioneers Art Chantry and Jeff Kleinsmith. Throw in the clean lines, iconic images, and bright colors of the Soviet constructivist artists and the work of Reid Miles and David Stone Martin, designers for (respectively) the Blue Note and Norgran jazz labels in their prime years, and you'll have some idea of what Aesthetic Apparatus is up to. What Byzewski and Ibarra have in common with most of those artists is an appreciation for clean, classic designs and simplicity, and the general absence of the lurid, cartoony clutter that often marks the work of their contemporaries.

"Usually if you talk to people about poster artists today they'll think of Chantry or someone like Frank Kozik," Ibarra says. "And while there's probably a little of that influence in our stuff, I think we're essentially trying to do something different." Byzewski and Ibarra hardly fit any of the prevailing sartorial stereotypes of graphic-designer chic: They look and dress like two guys who might schlep gear for a typical indie-rock band.

"The crucial thing is to recognize that there are people who have inspired you," Ibarra allows. "But you don't want to announce those influences too obviously."

 

The production of an Aesthetic Apparatus poster is a streamlined, barebones affair, done almost entirely in the basement studio. The design is assembled on the computer, incorporating freehand elements with random images from obscure sources--an old pattern for a ski mask, ancient clip art, or a fragment from a Sunday newspaper advertisement, for instance.

"We have suitcases and boxes full of old crap," Byzewski says. "That stuff's really our main resource."

These images are then tweaked or combined with other graphic elements and typography; the resulting design is printed on a digital plotter at a copy shop. The print--essentially an oversize digital copy--is soaked in vegetable oil to achieve transparency, and serves as film for transferring the image to emulsified screens--almost like photo paper--on a light table. Ibarra and Byzewski mix their paints right in the basement and ultimately hand-screen the posters one at a time on a worktable from Axman Surplus.

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