Ted McGrath

 
During Ted
McGrath’s senior year at Pratt Institute, two one-on-one critiques
in the same week took the following turn: “That thing you’re
doodling is better than the work you turned in,” McGrath recalls a
professor saying. “Do that.” Things didn’t go
much better in a typography class taught by Ruth Guzik, in which McGrath
had to draw Caslon by hand. “It looked like I’d done it on
top of a washing machine,” he says. Guzik agreed, but with a
twist: “Everything is so bad, but so consistent, that it’s
interesting.”

Encouraged by such astute guidance, McGrath
stopped trying to do it right and started being himself.
“I’m a mess,” he admits. “It frustrated teachers
who wanted more polished work.”

As a child in eastern
Pennsylvania, he was saturated with the work of N. C. Wyeth and the
hyperrealism of classic American illustration. McGrath’s mother
worked at the Brandywine River Museum, the keeper of that tradition, and
a print of one of Wyeth’s iconic paintings from Treasure
Island
hung in the living room. As a boy, he took classes with Karl
Kuerner III, who studied under Wyeth’s son
Andrew.

McGrath’s gift, however, is for work with a
“notebook aesthetic”—idiosyncratic, collage-based, and
imbued with offbeat humor. His style evokes a daydreaming student whose
imagination brims with DC comics, Space Ghost, Kurt Vonnegut, and
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The work is proudly
process-apparent. “It’s beautiful to see the
skeleton,” he says. He loves artists’ sketches, citing an
Ingres study he saw at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art years
ago as an example. His hero isn’t N. C. Wyeth but Robert
Rauschenberg, among others, who embraced the neo-Dada humor of found
doodles.

McGrath was astonished when he realized that he could get
paid for his whimsical creations. A Japanese toy company that was
developing a “lo-fi karaoke video game” hired McGrath to
“draw robots that might be in it.”

Although that
particular dream ended after three months, Esquire Russia called
soon after with an assignment to illustrate a deadly dull fashion shoot
featuring Ralph Fiennes. The art director’s instructions:
“Don’t draw over the clothes. Otherwise, knock yourself
out.” McGrath promptly redeemed the layout with a fresh and funny
antidote to the try-hard cool of the men’s fashion spread. In one
image, a bear looms over the relatively slight Fiennes, dissing him with
lightning-bolt rays of vexation.

McGrath’s work also embraces
serious topics, disdaining hipster snark; one of his pointed pieces for
the New York Times Op-Ed page, “False Hopes and Natural
Disasters,” uses the text columns to suggest buildings threatened
by tsunamis. Much of his work relies heavily on words, such as
“Behavioral Medication for Children,” which tweaks the
classic phrenology diagram to portray the effect of drugs on children.
His pieces can also be beautiful, as in “Blue Front,” a
creation for The New York Times Book Review that epitomizes his
pastiche of discrete color and black-and-white elements; it uses four
rips of masking tape to nail the rough-hewn aesthetic.

McGrath
embraced this approach at the urging of his teachers. Now, he’s
doing the urging. In the fall of 2006, McGrath began teaching
mixed-media illustration at Pratt, no doubt looking for the inspired
doodle.


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