On the spot

Picture Mechanics, a consortium of well-known graphic illustrators, shows its fine-art side this month at local gallery Exploding Head

Vivienne Flesher, untitled, charcoal on paper, 2004.

Vivienne Flesher, untitled, charcoal on paper, 2004.

We encounter art every day.

Some of us are deliberate about these encounters, seeking out places where we can stand in front of works of art and experience them with our eyes and other senses. Then there are those who stumble across art in public places—medical offices, business lobbies, hotels and other venues where someone had the foresight to buy and place art for public consumption.

But, for many of us, our principal interaction with art is in its various commercial applications—in illustrations that accompany magazine or newspaper articles, in advertisements or in the logo designs that come affixed to the products we use.

Unless we’re involved in the graphic-arts or advertising businesses, we probably don’t give a whole lot of thought—other than “Oh, that looks nice”—to the artist-generated images we’re faced with day in and day out.

A few of those images are, well, let’s be charitable and say that a kid with a box of crayons could do a comparable job. But most of them, given the competitive nature of the design business, are quite attractive. And some of them are downright stunning.

The people behind them, namely the artists who generate the illustrations we come across while thumbing through newspapers and magazines, are often a faceless lot. Some, like Gary Baseman, make the leap into pop culture—via cartoon shows like Baseman’s Disney/ABC series Teacher’s Pet or his recent (and quite excellent) 246-page tome from Chronicle Books, Dumb Luck. Others, like Peter Kuper, do covers of Time and Newsweek and also appear in such alternative comics as Bleeding Heart. Still others, like Gary Taxali and Michael Bartalos, are unknown outside of graphic-design circles but possess trademark styles that are instantly recognizable to any frequent reader of magazines.

What the above names, and three dozen or so more, have in common is their membership in Picture Mechanics, a group founded in December 2000 by Toronto-based artist Taxali, along with Richard Downs, an illustrator who lives in Nevada City, and several others.

By late 2000, it was becoming quite apparent to illustrators around the country that big changes were afoot in their line of work. Ad agencies and art directors, faced with cost-cutting measures and newly liberated by such tools as the personal computer and the Internet, were commissioning spot illustrations—drawings or paintings designed specifically to accompany text—less and less frequently. Instead, they began depending more heavily on archives of stock images, both illustrations and photographs, for art.

The illustrators noticed the shortfall right away. Vivienne Flesher, an artist based in San Francisco, summed it up thus: “If I’m an art director now,” she said, “I can just turn to the computer and bring up a stock image that might suit my needs and pay $25 for it, rather than pay an illustrator or photographer to do it for me. And that’s really what happened, I think. It’s kind of destroyed our business.”

In much the same way that computerized type fonts empowered novice designers to dispense with typographers, thus resulting in a lot of laughably ugly mixing of typefaces and other design faux pas, the rise of desktop publishing cheapened the union of text and image by supplanting custom-designed images with more-generic art. Instead of an art director working with an illustrator to come up with a spot illustration specifically designed to pull readers into the text, or hiring a photographer and models for a custom photo shoot, it became more common practice to shop for generic images.

This posed a marketing problem for the illustrators, who came to understand that some kind of cooperative venture was essential for survival. “What we thought to do was using artists’ names to drive traffic into one central Web site,” said Downs, who added that most of the fledgling group’s members knew each other from the industry and that some of them have become friends through the process of setting up Picture Mechanics. “We thought that the artist-consortium idea was really valid at that time.”

Ward Schumaker, detail from “Noguchi Tornado,” acrylic on canvas, 2004.

Flesher found value in its networking potential, too. “It was a way to inform each other of what’s going on in the industry—who’s paying, who’s not paying,” she said.

Picture Mechanics was launched in December 2000. The group has a Web address (www.picturemechanics.com), and its Web site contains examples of its members’ work, along with links to their Web sites, which—as the home pages of any Internet-savvy entrepreneur should—contain extensive portfolios of their work, along with contact information.

According to Downs, the Picture Mechanics site gets 3,000 hits a day—and these aren’t from casual point-and-clickers, but people who actively browse through the site’s links. “We get a lot of traffic from all the big media buyers and companies who go through the Web site,” he said. “And all of these artists are active in the industry, really developing much of the look of contemporary illustration over the last 20 years. In fact, if you open any magazine, you probably would see at least one illustration by a Picture Mechanics artist.”

In addition to its efforts to function as a marketing union for illustrators, Picture Mechanics has showcased the work of its members in several gallery shows. One of those shows opened September 2 at Exploding Head Gallery in downtown Sacramento; it will be up through September 28.

“Basically, what it is,” said gallery co-owner Jodi deVries, “is fine art from graphic artists and illustrators.”

When Downs contacted deVries, who runs the gallery with her business partner, Linda Welch, she jumped at the chance to show the works of a group that includes—in addition to the aforementioned Baseman, Downs, Flesher, Kuper and Taxali—Cathie Bleck, Calef Brown, Marc Burckhardt, Greg Clarke, Jeffrey DeCoster, Henrik Drescher, Geoffrey Grahn, Jody Hewgill, Tim Hussey, Anita Kunz, Greg Mably, Mark Matcho, Adam McCauley, Joel Nakamura, Christian Northeast, Dan Page, Hanoch Piven, Ward Schumaker, Katherine Streeter, Mark Todd, Mark Ulriksen, Esther Pearl Watson and Nicholas Wilton.

Exploding Head tends to specialize in higher-end works from artists, generally from outside of Sacramento but often from Northern California. The gallery isn’t known for the kind of freewheeling California pop-culture fare that Toyroom Gallery shows, but it doesn’t shy away from edgier works, either. And the Picture Mechanics show fits neatly into the gallery’s parameters. “Some people are marketing it as pop, and some people are marketing it as lowbrow,” deVries said. “Gary Taxali has a show at the La Luz de Jesus down in L.A., which is kind of lowbrow, where the artists are marketing their fine art with bits of pop art.

“It’s kind of hard to put your finger on it,” she added.

Downs, who worked as a liaison between Exploding Head and the various Picture Mechanics artists, was equally mystified. “Who knows what we’re going to get as the stuff comes in,” he said. “There’s Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, who are doing really personal work, and Adam McCauley, who’s a fabulous illustrator who’s doing sculpture. The logistics of keeping track of each one of those people, and getting their artwork in, is quite an ordeal in itself. Especially these guys who are like total freaks.” Downs paused, realizing he might be speaking pejoratively about his fellow artists, before qualifying his statement: “I mean, they’re not freaks in the freak sense, but they’re just eccentric, and they’re really busy illustrators.”

Like Drescher, who lives in China and shipped acetates out of Hong Kong. “It’s just a really interesting mix of artists and celebrities. Gary Baseman just finished up his movie Teacher’s Pet, and he’ll be participating,” Downs said.

The ideal demarcation between a spot illustration and a piece of fine art would be that the illustration is dependent on and intimately tied to the text it accompanies; it attempts to appeal to the viewer’s intellectual faculties so the viewer will read the story. A fine-art piece, on the other hand, works on a variety of levels; as a field upon which the artist has poured a concentrated amount of his or her life energy, its purpose is sometimes nebulous to the artist and is left to the viewer to make sense of.

For the Picture Mechanics artists, that demarcation wasn’t so cut and dried; they had differing approaches to what they would submit. “Much of my fine artwork extends what I do in illustration, so it’s really personal,” Downs explained. “Probably, it would be difficult to get an editor or art director to approve my concepts in my personal work. But you’ll see other illustrators just really doing their illustration work in there, and you might get some sculpture. Really, it’s a weird bag.”

For Flesher, size matters: “The scale is different,” she said. “I’ve always done something that either I can scan or send to a client or stick in a FedEx package; everything has been very small and geared for print, and often, it’s a collaboration between a client and myself. The work I’m doing for a gallery is work that I would personally like to see hanging on a wall.”

Flesher’s husband, Schumaker—who quit painting in Nebraska before moving to the Bay Area in the 1960s, where he became a paper salesman and then a graphic designer before his wife encouraged him to paint again—agreed. “For many of us, it’s a chance to show work that we wouldn’t probably get to do as jobs,” he said. “Or, in my case, I don’t like to see illustrations on the wall as much as I like to see paintings made for the wall. So, the things I make for the wall are quite a bit different from what I do during business hours.”