Elliott Earls — Hand X Linear

May 2019

Every month artist and designer Elliott Earls produces a hand-pulled screen-printed poster—sized at 22×30 inches on 100% cotton paper with a deckle edge—which are divided into two series that get released on an alternating monthly schedule. These prints feature characters exclusive to each series but they all come from the same lineage: the primordial race of giants, the cyclops. Cyclopes are known for their brute strength and one-eyed face which some suggest stems from how cyclopes were conveyed in Greek mythology as blacksmiths freed from Tartarus (a sort of Hell) during the Titanomachy (the Titan War). Blacksmiths in that age used to wear eyepatches to shield both eyes from being blinded by flying sparks—thus the fictional representation as one-eyed, brute force giants. In another reference, the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons conveys the cyclops as two species: a 40 foot giant who eats its defeated, and the 7.5 foot humanoid called a cyclopskin who enslaves its defeated. Both are known for being filthy, smelly, and defensive with a shell of callused skin littered with scars and boils.

This gross description certainly depicts the character and motifs found in the one series titled “Hand” by Earls. Here the cyclops is a grotesque male genitalia, with one eye on the scrotum, a wrinkly penis shaft for a long nose, and a buck-toothed mouth were the head of the penis should be. But this defaced Rocko's Modern Life Heffer cyclops isn’t the only thing deformed: typography and illustrated motifs read almost like glossolalia because of their inverted, rotated and three-dimensional renderings (“Stole N Elf Oaf Echo Es Clov Es;” “Evil Hog Devolve Ego;” “Aft Elf Loosen”). You can’t even classify these phrases as broken english or primitive syntax—it’s all filler with no urgency. This gibbering is then carried over to, what seems like, the arbitrary positioning of all the elements on these prints—graphic motifs extruding from other motifs, creating an experimental space in which this cyclops lives.

Yet in the other series of prints, titled “Linear” by Earls, the cyclops is all business and clean-cut. Even the way Earls illustrates this cyclops is through an array of printing techniques that give the prints an almost op-art sensibility that makes this cyclops look like a 3D render. In addition, Earls fashions the cyclops in a high-art manner with it posing as a heroic bust or fragmented classical Greek sculpture, positioned perfectly center on each print (this Linear cyclops has never been rendered beyond the elbows or below the lower abdomen).

Regardless of their looks, the characters in both series have been produced from a conceptual lineage starting with the primordial giants; to the specified cyclops; to their source of inspiration, the blacksmith; to today’s version of a craftsperson, an artist; to, finally, the work of that artist. But there must be something more to this other than Earls’ love for cyclopes... And there is, because upon a closer inspection of the Linear prints we realizes that it isn’t a cyclops at all but an imposter—the Linear being is wearing a cyclops helmet! It seems the “Mad King,” the name Earls has given to this character, is nothing more than a SEO trick by Earls to catch those googling for the Game of Thrones character. This also means that the human within the Linear series is just appropriating the experimental and brute nature of the cyclops from the Hand series like some fast-fashion brand appropriating hardcore punk iconography so that one can feel like a rebel without actually having to be one. A person who wears many hats (or in this case, helmets) is simply an individual skirting around the effort and commitment needed to understand a demographic of people or societal affairs.

And it’s at this stage that we also need to realize that the once experimental Hand series is now morphing into the clean Linear series, shaped and distorted by capitalism’s mystifying reductiveness through the use of blinding neon colors, hypnotic op-art effects, and detritus language, disorienting viewers into believing the “self-evident” capitalist myth of “the free individual.”1 In both series, the characters are individuals, the only beings on the page: the Linear characters are always surrounded by brightly colored nothingness, while the Hand series characters are amongst random remnants of visual culture. The major point is that in both of these worlds there is no other, there is only themselves and their self-preservationist mentality. Society is dead here.

Therefore, like cyclopes, these prints are defensive. The density of arbitrariness in these prints—which in most cases would lead to some wide and varying interpretations—leads to almost nothing other than some “cycloptical” fan-fiction. A facade is created by this density that is not only impenetrable but says of the maker, “Look, I’m so good at my craft that I can put anything on the page and it will be considered important.” This isn’t a jab at Earls—some of these prints are quite beautiful, and Earls’ graphic design work made in the 90s is still, in my opinion, almost two decades later, way, way, way ahead of its time. Rather, it’s the manner in which these prints seem to depict Earls holding on to some archaic method that most other practitioners are striving to move away from. Dating back to whoever the hell knows, the poster format has basically been the foundation of all graphic design—from a business card, to the landing page of a website, to even a book, they all are, in some way or another, based on or a more complex version of a poster. The poster format is the foundational means for printed and digital communication and its dissemination—it’s an opportunity to name a time, a place, a thing, that will bring different people to a gathering of collective feedback exchanges in physical or digital spaces. So, while the poster is still a valid format to use as an offensive posture toward collective action, Earls’ prints cast himself as part of the old guard of design defending their ground with the status quo.

The days of designers like Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, and Michael Beirut telling us what’s good and bad are over, and with it the idea, goal, and status of the individual, iconic and genius designer. We, as a community of practitioners, possess the means necessary to direct and change the discipline and profession of design. You can see it in little moments like social media posts on Twitter and Instagram of designers tagging the profiles of the designers who worked under or with them, giving credit where credit is due unlike the partners and CEOs of some design agencies claiming everything under their names. Presently, design consultancy Pentagram no longer lists the designers who worked on each project, and the consultancy 2×4—who once wrote an essay about this issue, although they never really took steps to address it2—have removed, except for the three partners, the names and titles of the designers working at the studio. On a personal note, there was nothing worse than finding out that designer Tibor Kalman and “his” influential essay Good History, Bad History—my first introduction to design criticism—was written by the designers working under him—he just presented it while speaking at a conference and took all the credit in most republished versions. At a certain point we must consider that the promotion of a creative-genius practice propels a far-right identitarianism movement within design, stating that the best designers—the one’s worth mimicking and listening to—are mostly white men who (knowingly or not) make white, masculine culture with the privilege of whitewashing the labor and involvement of others. This is major problem within the design profession, and as theorist Mark Fisher once stated,

it is imperative to reject identiarianism, and to recognize that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications. [...] Instead of freezing people into chains of already-existing equivalences, the point [is] to treat any articulation as provisional and plastic. New articulations can always be created. No one is essentially anything. [...] Our struggle must be towards the construction of a new and surprising world, not the preservation of identities shaped and distorted by capital.3

I am not arguing that Earls or the aforementioned agencies are propagating right-wing ideologies. The point is that these people in a position of power and thus privilege need to understand the mentality and practice they are instilling within the profession is dangerous when they insist “that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.”4 That closed-mindedness leads to a discipline and profession built upon exclusivity-driven principles instilled by a ruling class which are subsequently crafted into an attractive, trendy, and homogenous aesthetic that is treated as gospel. Again quoting Fisher,

The distrust of abstractions—summarized by Margaret Thatcher’s famous denial: ‘there is no such thing as society’—finds expression in a widespread reduction of cultural ideas and activities to psychobiography. [...] Artists and musicians are faced with the choice of representing themselves in this biographical way or not appearing at all. Attempts to appeal to abstract ideas alone—either in the art itself or the forces it is dealing with—are habitually greeted with a mixture of contempt and incomprehension.5

In other words, Earls is slowly being pulled into the vicious circle that those aforementioned agency CEOs and iconic designers have been guilty of, milking the defining visual traits that gave them, as individuals, celebrity status and calling it dogma for success. The lack of society in Earls’ prints perpetuates this vicious circle of individualism and defensiveness, leading to the interpretation of these series being exclusively for and about Earls—he too is a filthy and toxic tunnel-vision cyclops. To depict these prints as being conceived without the input, feedback, or cultural influence of others is misdirecting both himself and his audience from the intellectually provocative and diverse future he seems to be striving for. Why isn’t Earls experimenting with communal ways in which a poster can be illustrated and disseminated, similar to his pedagogical methods, performance films, and early new media works? Embedded in the Cranbrook Academy Of Art community, and similar to the See Red Women’s Workshop from the 70s, Earls can easily explore the modes and models for creating a co-authorship design practice—that incorporates bartering/knowledge exchange, a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen approach, or audience participation—that newer generations are seeking. Pushed even further, the term publishing can be given a new definition other than simply screen-printing a poster and mailing it out, which is what publisher and educator Eva Weinmayr tries to envision:

Let us not look at publishing as the end of a process during which consolidated thoughts and enquiries are put into a final brochure, book or leaflet. Let us look at publishing more as a way to initiate a social process, a social space, where meaning is collectively established in the collaborative creation of a publication. From this perspective, all of a sudden publishing is not a document of pre-defined cognitions. Publishing becomes a tool to make discoveries [...] working towards establishing conditions for the co-production of meaning. [...] a social process where issues and ideas can be articulated and acted upon, where skills are exchanged and knowledge co-produced—in public. [...] How can we create a horizontal model of communication between artist and audience, a less owner-ship based notion of authorship?6

Although these series are a few years old, maybe co-authorship is Earls’ eventual goal, as we’re still in the middle of the story and vision for all these characters: he’s introducing us to the alienating feelings that come from individualism in a homogeneous society to then later lift our spirits with prints of collective voices and action. But as they currently stand, with nothing that proves that the cyclopes are being influenced and shaped by societal culture instead of capital, it’s difficult to imagine these print series having a positive outcome. Again, maybe Earls knows that the jig is up as he has replaced the cyclopes in both the Hand and Linear series with Reggie, a true cyclops, although his mannerisms are mopey and cute. As the “Spirit of the Studio,” Reggie has good intentions but ends up causing acts that border on mischief. There are instincts within Reggie and his brief appearances to believe that he along with Earls can be offensive rebel insiders that will clumsily bring class consciousness and co-authorship models to the forefront of design discourse. But if the recent Hand series print is any sort of indication of what’s to come, then Reggie and his appended business attire doodle will also fail us.

  1. Fisher, Mark. “The Can Be Different In The Future Too: interviewed by Rowan Wilson for Ready Steady Book.” K-punk. Repeater Books, 2018. ↩︎

  2. Rock, Michael. “The Problem of Provenance.” Multiple Signatures. Rizzoli, 2013. ↩︎

  3. Fisher, Mark. “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” North Star. November 2013. ↩︎

  4. Ibid. ↩︎

  5. Ibid. ↩︎

  6. Weinmayr, Eva. "One Publishes to Find Comrades." In The Visual Event: An Education in Appearances, by Oliver Klimpel and Britt Helbig. Leipzig: Spector Books, 2014. ↩︎