A floating bed of nails is ablaze. A crying child floats down a river in a coffin. Disembodied hands drip blood from the sky. These are just a few “Scenes from the Afterlife,” a.k.a., the 2010 Blab Show. It premiered at the Society of Illustrators’ Museum of American Illustration in New York, and is now on display until October 2nd at Copro Gallery in Los Angeles. Illustration? Gallery? So are these paintings just glorified feature illos, sans text? Or are they really works of fine art, to be hung on hallowed museum walls? Ask Monte Beauchamp and he’ll tell you it doesn’t really matter.
Monte’s the curator of the Blab Show, and he doesn’t mind where it’s exhibited. It began as a one-off at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station complex back in 2005, but the turnout, by Juxtapoz hipsters and the otherwise curious, was so phenomenal that less than an hour into opening night, Monte was invited to return in 2006. And then again, and again, for the last six years.
Unlike Blab the Show, Blab! the publication was no instant success. Monte began editing, designing, and printing it back in 1986 as a more-or-less annual affair. They were small, black-and-white pamphlets with color covers, and they relied heavily on text. They resembled fanzines, and hardly anyone noticed. After the first couple of issues, Kitchen Sink Press picked up the publishing. 1995’s issue #8 had a Chris Ware cover and introduced Blab!s now-trademark ten-by-ten inch format. Fantagraphics took over after that. Full-bleed images began to dominate, and circulation rose.
And now, the magazine has just been rechristened. BlabWorld #1 debuts in stores this week, now published by Last Gasp and sporting a “cool cat and kittens” cover by Shag. Its main section is titled “Afterlife.”
Afterlife? Artpocalypse? Monte and I have known each other for several years, but I’ve never heard him dwell on downbeat topics such as death and destruction. But then, he is based in Chicago. My curiosity piqued, I started our conversation by asking him just how he arrives at the themes for his books and shows…
Monte Beauchamp: The themes manifest themselves, actually. For example, the Artpocalypse feature for BlabWorld‘s debut volume, here’s how that one began. I was out and about when a real bad storm hit Chicago. The wind was gusting about, knocking things around, and off in the distance I saw a plethora of objects such as paper plates, newspaper pages, small bags – things like that – slowly swirling about in the sky, as if the atmosphere were a giant vacuum cleaner pulling them upward. It was an eerie yet wondrous sight that made me think of the Rapture, about how Christians purportedly will be drawn skyward up to heaven to meet Jesus. And then such a scene as painted by Ryan Heshka flashed in my head. I pitched the idea to Ryan, he dug it, and turned in a masterpiece. It was so phenomenal, it inspired me to invite other artists to create end-of-the-world type scenarios, which became the feature “Artpocalypse,” for BlabWorld #1. It was a real organic process.
So too, with our current theme, “The Afterlife,” slated for BlabWorld #2. That came about in a similar fashion. I was passing Graceland Cemetery where one of my heroes is buried, the world-class black boxer Jack Johnson, and I began thinking about what a phenomenal thing he made of his life, and then this cornball thought flashed in my head about if there’s an afterlife, I wonder what Jack is doing now? Is he still boxing, consorting with white women, things like that, which in turn gave way to me inviting particular artists to paint visions about the topic. So that’s how that particular theme got started.
Generally speaking, the direction for an issue of Blab! seldom takes place in the studio. It comes about while I’m out in the world, experiencing life.
Dooley: How has your earlier advertising art career influenced your current status as curator, editor, and designer?
Beauchamp: Back in the day it influenced it big time. Had it not been for advertising, Blab! #1 never would have happened. Advertising gave me the ability to design, package, and produce each issue. Mind you, this was the mid-’80s, the pre-computer age of advertising, so to assemble and self-publish a mag was a rather intensive undertaking. I spec’d all the type, shot all the stats, and, with a dozen X-acto blades, a gallon of rubber cement, a quarter pint of Bestine, and a stack of art boards, set about to keyline the entire issue. On a production level, that’s what was required to make the first nine issues happen. Thanks to the computer, production became a much less arduous task.
Dooley: You once told me that album jackets influenced Blab!‘s square format. What’s that story, just for the record?
Beauchamp: Until the advent of CDs, record jackets played a key role in an album’s listening experience. You’d put the platter on, relax, pick up the jacket, and begin poring over its imagery, stylized lettering, lyrics, its overall design. Oftentimes I’d be whisked away by the imagery and before I knew it, the first side of the record was over. That early record album experience helped influence the decision to reformat Blab! from a pocket-sized digest to a giant-sized square with full page pictures; that, in tandem with the fact that the square was a key shape early comic book panels were drawn in. The idea of amplifying tiny comic book panels up to record-album size felt like a refreshing, experimental, and invigorating direction to go.
We received some flack about it, too; several comics critics and fans complained that we were cutting corners by isolating panels from their traditional format and blowing them up to album size. Designers, non-comic fans, and gallery goers, on the other hand, loved it. They liked the fact Blab! didn’t look like a traditional comics periodical.
Beauchamp: At one time, I was dearly fond of animation, and still am – in the hands of brilliant creators such as Valentin Olshvang, Tim Burton, and Max Fleischer. Yet I find the plethora of flash-animated web banners by advertisers a total nightmare. Images of roaches crawling up the side of the computer screen, or some gal with a bad case of acne smearing ointment all over her face, I find extremely annoying. And it pains me to realize this is the direction a good portion of animation is headed. So I don’t blame illustrators for being upset that this bottom-of-the-barrel type of animation is where illustration is headed.
But I don’t pay attention to the doomsayers of illustration and those who are attempting to force all publications to put their periodicals on the web. Printed illustration is here to stay. People will forever enjoy a great illustration printed on pulp. Illustration isn’t going away, it’s just being challenged, that’s all. Nations challenge each other all the time, and oftentimes battles have to be waged for people to protect their own turf.
Back in the mid-’50s, people thought the heyday of comic books was over. Particular businessmen within the comics industry banded together and implemented a self-imposed comics code, attempting to force more liberal-minded publishers out of business. And guess what? They succeeded. It didn’t matter to them that they put hundreds of cartoonists out of work, or that titles such as Weird Science, Tales from the Crypt, and Two-Fisted Tales, which thousands of children loved – among them Stephen King, George Carlin, Jerry Garcia, and Stephen Spielberg – were barred from distribution. All the businessmen cared about was securing more of the market share for their own product. Then what happens? Twelve years later, a cartoonist comes along, creates a comic book on his own terms, and distributes it outside the Comics Code network. R. Crumb’s Zap ignited a revolution in comics that redefined the entire medium, eventually rendering the Code passé.
.Dooley: How do you distinguish between fine art and illustration?
Beauchamp: I don’t. An anonymous “Kilroy was Here” drawing from the 1940s moves me equally as much as a Mr. Softee painting by Keith Haring. To me, great art is great art, no matter which side of the dividing line it’s drawn on.
Dooley: What do you call the artists you publish?
Beauchamp: They’re referred to as Blab! artists.
Dooley: Okay then, how would you describe other artists you favor?
Beauchamp: That’s more problematic. I love non-linear art as much as linear. Occasional drawings by children I’ll find as equally compelling as that of Henry Darger. A chimpanzee drew a cover for Mad magazine, which has remained a personal favorite for many years. It’s impossible to tag these diversified examples with a single moniker other than “art.”
Dooley: As always, you’ve introduced new talents to the book and the show in addition to bringing back your “usual suspects.” How do you determine who to include?
Beauchamp: Blab! is an orchestrated look; seldom do I ever accept submissions. I approach each issue as if I’m a conductor of a visual symphony. So there are always particulars I’m on the lookout for when compiling an issue. I’m always fishing around for styles we don’t have, or styles that obsessively favor a particular element of art, for example texture or shape or color and so forth, unlike the digest-sized Blab!s, which favored primarily line. The character of the work is also extremely important; just like a character role in a movie, you want something original yet something that fits in with the rest of the show.
A recent addition to Blab! that I’m extremely proud of is CJ Pyle. When CJ first made contact, and explained his portraitures were two-color, rendered in ball point pen and a colored pencil on the inside of record jackets, and that each one took four to six weeks to complete, I didn’t know what to expect. But jeezus, what a delight that was to have him show up at the Blab! doorstep.
Dooley: How does BlabWorld differ from your older Blab!s?
Beauchamp: Blab! changed its focus from comics to more of a “fine art-comics-graphics-illustration” approach beginning with issue eight, back in 1995. It’s now a hardcover book, full color, with more pages. I’ve dumped a good portion of the comic stories in favor of more articles, artist profiles, and singular imagery. Each issue will feature four to six short, sequential stories, formatted in a children’s book style rather than comic-book fashion. Plus, we’re beginning to dabble in photography, which I’ve always been an admirer of.
And we’re just getting started. With the rebirth of Blab!, I’m pushing the pedal to the floor.
Dooley: Okay, so where are you headed?
Beauchamp: In typical Blab! fashion, I don’t know where we’re going. It’s moving more towards an undefined, artistic experience. These days it seems as if it’s taken on a life of its own, as if some unseen force is guiding it, and, for reasons unknown, bringing me along for the ride.