Reality, Twice Removed

Q: What's a rabbit without a foot? A: The art of CSA design

Chuck Anderson loves everything. "Nothing really disgusts me," explains the man behind the monstrous inventions on Ox-Op's walls, amid the opening-night gallery crush for his show, Awful Pretty. "I despise 360-degree, rotating, gold-type logos or legends on websites, but if they're stupid enough or ugly enough, I find a certain beauty in them. I could say that I hate decoration, but I must like it enough to have decided that we'd do everything in this show on English wallpaper."

If the makers of the paper ever saw the uses their creations had been put to, they might reach for weapons themselves. Anderson and his team, CSA Design, have, um, modified each of the politely framed 12-inch-by-10-inch pattern swatches with silkscreened and painted images that relentlessly undercut their intended use as environmental embellishment. Tiny white flowers and baby blue ribbons on a field of pink provide a jarring background for the brown silkscreened rabbit's foot in one of the brushed aluminum frames that line the gallery. And that's before you notice the small rabbit painted in the lower right-hand corner, brown blood flowing from its severed front paw. (The name of the piece: "Tough Luck.") Diagonally across from the bummed bunny is the creation called "Buck Shot": a mounted deer's head, silkscreened in black on a field of vinyl fake-wood paneling, all of it tastefully spattered with red paint. "The fake-wood paneling is great," notes Anderson, "because it's twice removed from reality."

Anderson's height (at somewhere around two meters, he's easily the tallest person in the bright, track-lit room), combined with his short sandy hair, two-day stubble, black turtleneck, jeans, and youthful demeanor could easily suggest that he's a recently retired basketball player gone full-on boho. As it turns out, his calling came in the third grade, when a teacher lauded a collage he'd assembled from cutout pieces of black and red paper. "I thought, Here's something I can do well," he recalls. "Like many people, I think, I was so relieved by the knowledge that there was something, that I just put my creative wagons in a circle and stuck with it."

After graduating from MCAD in 1977, Anderson put in stints with several local design houses before starting Charles S. Anderson (CSA for short) Design. Since CSA set up shop in the Warehouse District in 1990, a host of companies have come calling: Target (for logo design and advertising); Paramount Pictures (packaging and product design, identity development); and the entity with which CSA is most closely associated by industry types, Michigan's French Paper Company (packaging, advertising, publication, poster, and interactive design). The firm, now 11 persons strong, has picked up enough awards to decorate a goodly-sized neighborhood bar. Its graphic work--posters that juxtapose multiple images with adventurous text--has found a place in the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, the Centre Pompidou and the Museum of Modern Art in Hiroshima.

Still, Anderson, who makes ample use of imagery from the '40s, '50s, and '60s, feels that the "retro" tag that CSA has been saddled with is inaccurate and unfair. "The meaning of the word has changed so much over the years," he observes, sipping a vodka and 7-Up. "Nowadays, it's pretty much synonymous with 'lack of imagination.' There's nothing worse than just taking some old pulp-fiction illustration and slapping it on the cover of a book. People don't use the materials intelligently. There's no sense of context."

At the Ox-Op show, context is everything and everywhere, right down to the framed rectangles of wallpaper on the gallery's white walls. CSA (the entire firm created the works in the exhibition under Anderson's supervision) are masters of novel and unsettling juxtapositions. Even the most wholesome-looking pieces in the show--brown silhouettes of a Bambi-like deer and a unicorn, each on multicolored paisley foil wallpaper--bristle with subversive intent once you notice the turds coiled as perfectly as soft-serve ice cream beneath each little critter.

"Those are 'Nature Calls 1 & 2,'" Anderson offers. "We spent quite a bit of time on titles for the pieces in the show, primarily because we're used to being able to incorporate text into posters. That's about the only thing that separates our graphic work from our fine art, if you wanna call it that."

Of course, the CSA stuff is fine art. Just ask the cartoonish, early-'60s hairdo gal on the bright blue, green, and white floral wallpaper with the handcuffs floating inside her thought balloon ("Entrapment"). In this theater of contextual transformation, even the glistening, bacon-wrapped pretzels on the buffet table make some kind of sense.

 
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