Design as language. Art takes a look at the genius of Cal Schenkel. ….
Art Chantry: yesterday, Mike Calkins posted a rather special item here on my FB™ page that I want to talk about. he found it posted on a sight called ‘dangerous minds’ (a remarkably appropriate name).
This weird ad was placed in a number of Marvel comic books in 1967 (I saw it in an issue of ‘strange tales’, this repro comes from an issue of ‘daredevil’). It advertises the latest release by the Mothers of Invention titled, “we’re only in it for the money” (critically praised as one of the very best albums of all time, if you believe that crap.) Frank Zappa demanded total control of everything and took the entire promotional budget for this release (I forget the label, but it was a big major label) and then sank it into adverts in comic books. Everybody was aghast, but the man knew his audience, ya know?
This ad was created by one of my all time heroes of graphic design – Cal Schenkel. he did all of those covers for the mothers of invention and early Zappa records, as well as work for Captain Beefheart and the gto’s and Wild Man Fischer. basically, he was the house artist at Zappa, inc.
I was one of those weird kids who didn’t do sports, but collected somics and ended up listening to frank zappa records instead. at first, I didn’t understand the music (it took me ten years to actually sit through an entire playing of Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’. I just couldn’t handle it.) but, I was instinctively grabbed by the images on the covers. Schenkel’s art was to take everything he could find and then break it and fuck it up and then use it in improbably ways. Looking at his work opened by eyes to impossible possibilities. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how he created some of that stuff. I show others, experts in their fields, and they are puzzled as well. He seemed to be tapping into some otherworldly technovision or something.
Finding Cal Schenkel was one of those “moments’ that everybody experiences in their lives – transitional awakenings. they’re called ‘epiphanies’. Calvin was an epiphany for me. he’s the one that defined by sardonic sense of humor (a nice way of saying ‘snarky’), he sold me forever on collage as expression and, most of all he turned me onto using mistakes and rubbish as means to a glorious end.
This little ad was my epiphany. tripping across it in 1967 (I was what, 13?) literally blew my mind. I read it and read it and stared at it. I didn’t get it. It took me a very long time to figure out it was selling a record. I had no idea what it was about. the blobby cartoon style (ala, Peter Max, Heinz Edelmann, Milton Glaser, and all those nameless psychedelic artists – all unknown to me at the time) was so clumsy and beautiful that it looked like it was done by somebody addled or disabled. the hand drawn copy – “cleans you! thrills you! cleans & thrills you!” – was so weird and snotty and cute that i still use it now, 50 years later. It was like a window to another universe. what did this all mean?
What it meant to me, of course, was not the importance of the actual SALE that was being rather badly attempted, but the impact was the way it looked. Cal Schenkel was using bits and pieces from another culture to break my perceptions open to possibilities. it was the hook of “the other”. He was actually selling me another way to view my reality. And it was ok. It was in a comic book!
This is where I learned that design is language. This is where it was first presented to me in such a dramatic fashion. from this point on, I looked at all the images around me a little differently, leading down the path to what I later became (whatever it is.)
I spend my time today digging through cultural detritus, examining and learning forgotten visual languages and absorbing them into my vocabulary. When I “write” in the this language of “graphic design”, all that crap I learned comes back out as part of my dialog, my accent, my dialect. It has become part of my make-up. But, then, that happens to everybody, but we seldom note it. We are a collection of crap that has been “presented” to us (shoved into our faces, rammed down our throats). We learn it and we repeat it and we become it.
It was was Cal Schenkel that I learned to AWARE of that process, to attempt to use it, to manipulate it. I learned the ‘artform’ of graphic design language from Cal. I thank him endlessly.