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.

The exposure table and spray booth (where the screens are rinsed) are tucked away in an adjacent laundry room, the spray booth consisting of an old laundry basin, a livestock feed bin with holes drilled in the bottom for draining, a clothesline and shower curtain hung from the ceiling beams, and a power sprayer from Target. The whole setup, Ibarra says, probably didn't cost more than a few hundred bucks. An old, built-in pantry along the wall serves as a handy storage space for screens. What they're doing "just proves that if somebody really wants to do this, they could do it with very limited resources," Ibarra says.

Aesthetic Apparatus was formed while Byzewski and Ibarra were working together at Planet Propaganda, a design firm in Madison. Ibarra had been fooling around with screen-printing for a while, and Ibarra had played in bands during his college years. The combination of the design chops they picked up at Planet Propaganda and their shared interest in music led to a sideline creating posters for a local band, P'Elvis.

"I guess I just realized at some point that I liked making posters more than I liked being in a band," Byzewski says. "I certainly never thought I could make a living doing it, which may yet prove to be true. But really what makes us do this is first and foremost a love for the music. A lot of the bands we work with mean the world to us, but nobody beyond our own little community knows they exist. It's nice to be able to play some role in supporting and promoting those people."

The decision to relocate to the Twin Cities was governed by the same practical thinking that governs Aesthetic Apparatus's design work. "We knew that we needed to be in a bigger city than Madison, but we wanted to stay in the Midwest," Ibarra says. "So our choices were basically Milwaukee, Chicago, or the Twin Cities. Chicago already has a really big design community and a bunch of great poster artists, but we sensed that there was kind of a void here. We knew that there was a large music community here and lots of places to play, and there weren't very many people doing poster work."

Aesthetic Apparatus had been in the Twin Cities only a few days when the two had their first stroke of good fortune. "Right after we came to town, I met this guy who runs a small label in St. Paul, Motorcoat records," Byzewski recalls. "Motorcoat Dave introduced me to Eric Westra, who did promotional stuff for First Avenue. A week later we started doing posters for them, and it's just kind of taken off from there."

Aesthetic Apparatus has a casual deal worked out with First Avenue that allows them to produce hand-numbered, limited-run poster editions promoting club shows, and then sell their work at the gigs and at www.aestheticapparatus.com.

"That's really one of the best parts of all of this--selling posters at the shows," Ibarra says. "You get so much great feedback, and it allows us to meet people who really appreciate what we're doing. We've made so many connections from just sitting behind the counter selling posters."

Aesthetic Apparatus depends on those connections. All their business is drummed up through word of mouth. The enthusiastic response to Ibarra and Byzewski's posters is a testament to their ability to capture some essential quality of a band while retaining a recognizable style of their own.

"You like to get some guidance from the people you're working with, if only so you have some parameters," Byzewski says. "There are a lot of poster artists out there who just do their stuff and slap a band name on there, but it's really more of an advertisement for them as an artist. But as designers, our goal is to promote the band first and foremost. They're supposed to be the focus."

"For us the whole differentiating factor is whether a poster is appropriate or inappropriate," Ibarra adds, and points out that the distinction has nothing to do with fussy morality. "We can love a poster and be really proud of it, but if the band doesn't have a positive reaction to it, then it feels like we haven't done the right poster."

The hallmark of the best Aesthetic Apparatus posters is their relative austerity and sharp focus. Ibarra and Byzewski favor bright blocks of color, free-floating images, and bold typography. Even their busier, more layered posters are relatively clean in comparison to the work of many peers.

"The simplicity of our posters stems from the fact that when we were starting out we really didn't know how to print very well," Byzewski says.

Ibarra agrees: "We definitely have to work cleaner and faster. If we exceed three colors on a poster we're like, 'Holy crap, how are we ever going to get this printed?'"

Ibarra also sees the work of Aesthetic Apparatus as essentially Midwestern. "I think our inclinations are to be subdued and tasteful," he says. "We're not trying to shout. We come back to simplicity again and again. That doesn't mean there can't be much going on, but you want to avoid dissonance at all cost. People think that because you have this big surface you should cram lots of stuff on it, but ideally our designs would work just as well as a postcard-sized image."

 

Thanks the exposure and feedback from websites such as gigposters.com, Ibarra and Byzewski have been able to subsidize their business through Internet sales.

"It's weird," Ibarra says. "We did a tour poster for Volante and sold it out really quickly. We got orders from all over the world, so it's pretty obvious that a lot of people who were buying the poster weren't necessarily fans of the band."

As gratifying as that response is, Byzewski and Ibarra are even more heartened by the local design and music community's enthusiasm for their work.

"Not just the music community, but the design community here has been really amazing and supportive," Ibarra says. "You'd think people would be threatened by the competition, but maybe it's just that they're not very threatened by us because they know that we're complete fucking amateurs."

When Aesthetic Apparatus did a poster for a recent Mission of Burma show at First Avenue, Byzewski and Ibarra were a little nervous about how the band would react to the work. "You know how [tinnitus-afflicted guitarist] Roger Miller wears those headphones?" Byzewski asks. "We tried to incorporate a headphone image into the poster, and we worried that he might think we were making fun of him. But afterwards the band came over and talked to us and invited us backstage. We went back there and [Hüsker Dü's] Grant Hart was sitting around talking with the band and Dan and I were just like, 'How the hell did we end up in this situation?'"

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