Post Typography explores patriotism, war, and baseball in OSAYCANYOUSEE
Published: September 5, 2012
Opening at the Windup Space Sept. 8.
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The persistent thrum of precipitation fills the letterpress studio in MICA’s Dolphin building, punctuated by cracks of thunder and the heavy thud of an old Vandercook press at work. Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen of Post Typography are finishing a new collection of prints, their pace as steady as the rain. When the final print is pulled and laid to dry on a rack, they stand back and inspect the result: a series of four dense squares of text, made using wood type from the Globe Poster collection. Composed from the condensed lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner” the set is one component of the design duo’s upcoming solo show, OSAYCANYOUSEE, opening at the Windup Space Sept. 8.
The suite is part of a concentrated body of prints and objects inspired by the War of 1812 that they made for the show. Approached by Philadelphia outfit Art in the Age to design a print series relating to the oft-forgotten war, Strals and Willen dove into the challenge with characteristic curiosity, culling thematic yarns from ample research. They looked for themes that developed during the War of 1812 which became recurrent in later conflicts, themes indicative of the national identity, so closely linked to the eruption and resolution of that conflict. “We like work that has multiple levels of meaning, either visual or conceptual,” Willen says. “We also like work that has a sense of humor.”
The Baltimore-based designers have been artistically collaborating since 2001. While studying together at MICA, they formed post-punk band Double Dagger and garnered early design experience by making their own posters and merchandise. Since the 2007 launch of Post Typography, they’ve amassed an impressive list of design clients, from Random House to The New York Times.
The letterpress prints, also titled OSAYCANYOUSEE, take the lyrics to Francis Scott Key’s national anthem-cum-bloody battle hymn and compact them, doing away with spaces and punctuation. The crowded squares of Gothic typeface hum with an energetic rhythm; lines of letters march forth in tight formation. Among the black text, only the initial “O” sings forth in Orioles orange, a sly wink at the traditional Camden Yards rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Perhaps a measure of the duo’s creative synchronicity, both Willen and Strals immediately thought of the song when they were approached by letterpress maven Mary Mashburn and offered access to the Globe collection.
“Part of what’s nice about the Globe letters is they’re sort of fucked up, they have that texture,” says Willen. “That’s what we’re doing with these prints. It’s taking [the lyrics] from being words to more of a pattern. The Globe type adds to this depth and variation.”
Taking the abstraction to the next level, Strals and Willen created a monoprint for the show by pulling all four letterpress lock-ups on the same sheet of paper. Thick, black rows of deformed text stand at the ready like an anxious battalion. It is the simplicity of the piece that renders it the most dangerous, deceptively quiet, yet sharp, like a Glenn Ligon painting with a little less fiery righteousness. “America has been shaped by war. The ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ is this military battle song, although nobody thinks about it like that anymore. It’s changed into something very abstract,” Willen says.
Strals and Willen share an ardent love of letter forms, a typographic infatuation that influences much of their work. “Letters in general, they’re these really abstract shapes, and yet they possess this unlimited ability to convey meaning and emotion. You can do a lot with the alphabet. You can do some things that you can’t do through photography or imagery,” Willen says.
Their comfort zone may be letterforms, but Strals and Willen are no slouches when it comes to imagery. “Bombs Bursting In Air” shows a large eye with a cannonball for a pupil. A chaotic swirl of brightly colored rockets and explosions swims in its iris. “The experience of seeing the bombardment was a psychedelic moment of inspiration for Francis Scott Key,” Strals explains. “Psychedelic in the purest sense, an experience that transports the mind to a euphoric state.”
In “And the Home of the Brave?” a teepee made from curled sheet music sits on blood-red ground. The image of the teepee comes from a photograph of a model the artists made. In fact, most of the imagery in the prints, including the cannonballs photographed on-site at Fort McHenry, are handcrafted or locally sourced. “And the Home of the Brave?” refers to the dire plight of American Indian populations during the War of 1812 as well as the insensitively conceived mascot for the Atlanta Braves, Chief Noc-A-Homa, who came out of his teepee in the bleachers to dance when the Braves hit a home run. Shockingly, this mascot continued to do his “war dance” in Atlanta up until 1986.
A simultaneously sharply critical, tongue-in-cheek tone extends to the only 3-D objects in the show, an edition of five wooden baseball bats, laser-cut with the words “American Expansionism” and an image of the Cleveland Indians’ blatantly racist mascot. Though the raw wood finish of the bat and its vintage mascot both allude to the old-timey patriotism so often associated with American baseball, it’s hard not to see the violence inherent in the piece. It is at once a reference to the damage done to native peoples in the war and perhaps a subtle nod to the violence that sane individuals can feel compelled to inflict when confronted with glaring commercial applications of racism. “The bat is a very dark joke,” Strals laughs.
The work Post Typography is producing for OSAYCANYOUSEE is witty, smart, and pleasantly concise. It is characteristic of the strengths and signatures of a long-lasting artistic partnership and also indicative of Post Typography’s continued adaptability and capacity for rising to new creative challenges.
The Windup Space will host an opening reception for OSAYCANYOUSEE on Sept. 8, featuring music by (new City Paper columnist) Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, Mickey Free, and Pure Junk.
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