Victor Schrager's photographs currently on view at Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York are dream-like and unsettling: richly saturated, they're a cross between the urban drama of a Hugh Ferris drawing and the sobering stillness of a Gerhard Richter painting. Are they landscapes? Portraits of cities? Architectural constructions? In truth, they're books, photographed at exaggerated angles and with dramatic lighting, densely rendered yet mysteriously stripped of any apparent meaning: after all, the titles are obscured, as are any typographic or, for that matter, communicative details. Of course, this is art photogaphy, subjective and impressionistichardly the terrain of communication design. Or is it? Somehow, despite their apparent obscurity, Schrager's images are anything but anonymous. They're timeless.
Seems to me there's a lesson in this.
Occasionally, it seems, there's an ineffable sense of impending doom to making design: you think it, you create it, you disperse it and then ... where does it go? Typically, it has a slow evolution, an embryonic migration from idea to thing, or from a single thing to many things. Or it splits, mutating into sub-particles of things. Or it boomerangs back in some way, informing the design of yet another thing. (We call this progress.) Sometimes, design extends its abbreviated journey from thing transmitted to thing received, but in general, the designed thing is intended to have a rather targeted life. Over the course of the past century, it might be argued that design which endured often did so because of its appeal to a kind of basic homogeneity: in other words, it achieved timelessness by removing itself from the specific. Consider the Swiss-born Adrian Frutiger's design of Univers; the Italian-born Massimo Vignelli's identity program for the US National Park System; the Uruguayan-born Edward Johnston's type design for the London Underground updated not long ago by the London agency Banks and Miles but, to the average person, fundamentally unchanged from its original inception in the 1930s. Empirically, these examples testify to the great modernist paradox: or, why the international style was, of course, not "international" in the least.
Timelessness through neutrality? I'm not so sure.
Over the years I've been teaching, I've occasionally seen and listened to my students argue on behalf of obscurity in their own work, pushing for a kind of cryptic obfuscation that forces the viewer to work harder, thus achieving, in the end, a greater sense of reward from having "gotten" a message. In the past, I've cringed inwardly and tried to talk them out of it. ("I think I'm on the right track," a student confessed to me several years ago, "but I'm not sure whether or not my work is subversive enough.") Designers (and not just my students) often equate political action with political design: it's didactic and intentional, provocative and discomfitting. We use our skills to put words into action, and more often than not, that means putting words into type. But is that the best way to engage our public? Is it the only way? In a complex world, do we urge clarification at all costs, or do we strive to create work that attains a parallel tone of complexity and, in so doing, end up contributing something of greater texture, and ultimately greater (read "longer-lasting") value in the end?
This week, I divided my time between installing an exhibition and reading my students' thesis drafts. I thought about clarity and readability, about whether or not my labels were large enough, about em-dashes and non-aligning numbers. I did not think about the world beyond any of this, even as I read about Ralph Nader and Haitian Rebels and The Big Rip. But when I looked at Schrager's photographs, I stopped and thought about all of these things. And it's going to change the way I work.