To steal (or, if you prefer, paraphrase) a line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning: David Plunkert, how do I admire thee? Let me count the ways. I admire the versatility in your styles; I admire the joy captured through your love of detail and affect; I admire your conceptuality; I admire the music you make through shape, line and color; and mostly, I admire the way you slide so effortlessly from abstract to representation, and from line to collage, from serious to dramatic to comic (sometimes in the same image). This is why I've taken a somewhat random (i.e., not pegged to "the news") moment to interview you about work that makes me happy in times so grim (even when you address those grim times).
David, when I see your work, I miss two things: One, never being able to draw with style and fluidity like you. Two, never being able to make collages with the such playful surrealism like you. So, let’s talk about what the media means to you. How did you begin as an illustrator with drawing and collage?
I started with drawing and eventually got into doing collage. The visual communication program at my alma mater (Shepherd University) was very geared towards graphic design students making images. I spent most of my four years there absorbing the work of the Pushpin artists — mainly Seymour Chwast. Michael David Brown was also an occasional instructor there and his work was immensely influential on me. Like Chwast, Brown used diverse media in his work, though his main approach was high contrast black and white found images combined with silhouettes. This is all pre-computer, so making images with black and white steel engravings was an economical way to work. It wasn’t until I saw Paul Davis’ cover for the first issue of Normal that I started to play around with full-color collage illustration that had a full value range.
When I started as a full-time graphic designer, I was mainly using drawing in my work but did a handful of projects using collage that used a mix of found images and new photos. This would have been between the years 1987–1992. When I became a freelance illustrator in 1993, the work I primarily pushed was cut and paste collage … and it owed a lot to the work of Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Hoch and Otto Umbehr.
Drawing is still important to the collage illustration process. I generally start with a sketch and hopefully the final collage retains the sketch’s energy.
What is it that drawing in your linear, colorful way allows you to do, or say, that collage does not—and vice versa?
With collage there is a possible limit to the audience you can reach … there’s something inherently counter-culture and/or funky about it. I get compared to Terry Gilliam sometimes because I think his work is the collage work that Americans are most familiar with. I think drawing is more immediate and at least with the way I try to do it, a more universal language. I don’t try to draw well … I try to make it interesting. I don’t think the underpinning of my drawing is as strong as George Grosz or Ben Shahn, though I try to achieve that kind of vibrancy. I still think of myself as a graphic designer and not really an illustrator. “Mark-maker” is probably more accurate.
Much of your work is done for posters. And many of those posters are stylistic or thematic (or both) series. Do you feel a need to do bodies of related work?
I use the annual series of posters for Theatre Project as visual R+D, with an emphasis on how the art relates to the paper and ink. Playing around with what constitutes a poster system or a poster non-system is something I started to seriously think about when collaborating with Paul Sahre many years ago. Paul is a genius in knowing what rules to bend, which ones to break, and which ones to always follow. I generally make each season have some cohesive visual approach due to, one: It’s quicker. Two: It’s generally more cost effective. And three: I can make them different from the previous year though still part of a larger set. How they are printed is generally pretty important to the visuals. The last several seasons I’ve explored using a common printing plate on four posters to see if I can make it an opportunity and not a limitation.
Describe your different approaches in relation to the art that has interested you. For instance, I see a kind of futuristic surrealism in your collage and a nod to cubism in your drawing.
Definitely. I wear my influences on my sleeve: Picasso, Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Ben Shahn, Paul Rand, Bill Traylor, Jack Kirby, George Grosz, etc. I tend to like the guys who work quickly and spontaneously.
Where would you like to take your work from here?
I would love to be able to “unclench” a bit and just let the drawing flow more naturally. Due to the speed that stuff needs to be created, it goes through the computer funnel at some point. I went to an exh
ibition of Bill Traylor’s work a few years back and I would have loved to have been on his shoulder to see him work. His work was deceptively simple but there are so many quirky and individual drawing choices he would make in a given picture. He certainly wasn’t making thumbnails and sketches—it just flowed out of his hand! More work that functions like the blowhard cover for The New Yorker would be appreciated. More object transformations, please!
Do you see illustration as being more or less fertile or expansive these days?
I think young ponies will find new fences to jump and they’re going to have to. I think it’s tougher to break into editorial these days since the free city papers have gone the way of the dodo. Books are still strong but I think the future of illustration is likely animation and games.
Do you have a project up your sleeve?
I’m currently finishing up a large private commission and have the usual annual summer campaigns to move out the door. When those are done, I hope I’ll find the time to make some book pitches.