Ed Fella is an internationally acclaimed graphic designer and typographer – a recipient of the AIGA medal and the Chrysler Design Award -- whose insistently personal art practice has influenced generations of designers. “I’m History,” at the Pasadena City College Art Gallery, will feature original drawings, photos, sketchbooks and printed posters by Fella. In addition to works that have cemented his reputation as an iconoclastic pioneer of postmodern design, the exhibition will also include a substantial body of recent work—from Fella’s “Counterfactual History” project—that has never before been published or exhibited.
Fella, born in 1938, practiced as a commercial artist in Detroit, Michigan, for three decades before enrolling at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he received an MFA in design in 1987. That year, he joined the faculty at California Institute of the Arts and has continued his career as a self-described “exit level designer,” undertaking a wide-ranging series of idiosyncratic projects that stubbornly resist categorization, though they freely partake of the conventions of graphic design, typography, photography, illustration and fine art.
The Pasadena exhibition focuses on Fella’s multi-faceted relationship to history; the title “I’m History” suggests Fella’s dual status as an established figure in the history of design and as a senior practitioner who is now making way for subsequent generations. It also refers to the ways that artistic sensibilities are shaped by the contingencies of time and place in which each of us finds ourselves. This extends to Fella’s exploration of an alternative version of his own history, his “Counterfactual History” project, in which Fella imagines the abstract paintings he might have created had he enrolled in art school in 1957, instead of finding employment in the advertising business.
Describing Fella as “vanguard master to a new generation of graphic designers,” critic Vince Carducci wrote in 2007 that, “Fella has created a body of work that’s as compelling as it is unique. Prodigiously mashing up low-culture sources with high-culture erudition, Fella’s work—perhaps more than that of any other contemporary designer—makes visible the postmodern concept of deconstruction, which recognizes that behind every articulated meaning is a host of other, usually repressed meanings, some antithetical. By battering and mixing fonts, engaging in visual puns and generally violating the tenets of ‘good design,’ Fella lets a thousand flowers bloom. His designs don’t cut through the clutter—they revel in it.”
Fella’s influence on contemporary design has been widely acknowledged: he is a recipient of the Chrysler Design Award (1997) and the AIGA medal (2007, “Recognized as an artist, educator and iconoclastic designer daring to reshape contemporary typography and graphic design”). His work has been the focus of issues of Emigre magazine (1991) and Idea magazine (Japan, 2006). Letters on America, a book of his photographs of vernacular lettering, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2000. His work is in the collections of the National Design Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The exhibition poster for “I’m History” is designed by Gail Swanlund, featuring "Ed Fella" set in a typeface designed by Sibylle Hagmann. Swanlund, like Fella, is a graphic designer whose work blurs distinctions between the categories of designer and fine artist. A former student of Ed Fella’s, Swanlund is now a member of the Graphic Design faculty at CalArts. She was invited to create a poster that was entirely of her invention; this is a nod toward an aspect of Fella’s history as a designer, the posters he produced for the Detroit Focus Gallery in the 1980s. Now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the Focus Gallery posters are notable in part for being entirely authored by Fella, typically including no images of work by the gallery’s exhibiting artists.
This exhibition is curated by Brian Tucker, director of the Pasadena City College Art Gallery. Tucker’s previous curatorial efforts at the gallery include “Mantong and Protong: Richard Sharpe Shaver and Stanislav Szukalski,” 2009, and “Love and Rockets: The Comic Art of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez,” 2005.
Related link: http://www.pasadena.edu/artgallery