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May 9, 2004

{     Interview : Little Friends of Printmaking     }    

You will laugh. Maybe a hearty guffaw at first or perhaps just a soft chuckle. Even the hippest of hipsters will be forced to crack a wry smile. Eventually you will find your jaw hitting the damn floor. The work of JW and Melissa Buchanan, collectively known as the Little Friends of Printmaking, is so layered and active that you're likely to have many different reactions popping off in your brain pan all at once. These two are up to something very clever, guaranteed to make you look once, twice, or fifteen times.

Adam: Your work has been lighting up Gigposters lately, sparking more conversation than a snowstorm in July. Within just a handful of postings, you've gotten some serious props from other printmakers. Is it enough to feel the love of your peers, or are you two hellbent on world domination?
James: We've been really overwhelmed by the positive reaction to our work on Everyone's been really great to us. One day, we were completely anonymous, and the next, people whose work we've respected for years knew us by name. It all happened very suddenly, and we still kind of can't believe it.
Melissa: Love don't pay the bills! Give me all your money.

Where is Little Friends of Printmaking currently headquartered?
J: We currently live and work in Madison, Wisconsin.

What got you started?
M: James and I studied printmaking at the University of Wisconsin. The facilities there are great, and there's a long printmaking tradition. At the UW, screenprinting is considered the poor sister of the other printmaking disciplines, the most non-art of the group. We both ended up in screenprinting because it was a way of escaping the precious, contentious atmosphere that surrounded the other departments.
So, last February, a local promoter approached us about doing some posters for his venue. He knew we were big music fans and that we were screenprinters, but that was pretty much all he knew about us.
J: So he lucked out, I guess.

Do you two hit the trail for poster conventions?
M: We don't get out much.
J: They make us stay inside.
M: Yes, "They."
J: Well, it's really just better for everyone if we don't go outside.
We did get to go down to Chicago recently and we got to meet a lot of the poster artists down there. Everyone was so gracious, and really generous, too. It was a real mind-blower.

Postering/printing for bands seems to be a double-edged sword. The band can become branded with an image or style that really belongs to the artist, and the artist(s) can sometimes become forever associated with the band they've done work for. How discerning are you when it comes to choosing who you work with and thus, are associated with?
J: I hate to say that we take what we can get, but we do live in a small city that gets passed over by a lot of tours, so that becomes a huge factor. Primarily, we try to do work for the artists that need us the most. We have no ambition to work with Clear Channel, or for top 40 bands, or whatever. Making posters, for us, is more about leveling the playing field�making sure that people come out and support these artists, and by extension, all of these small venues that are rapidly disappearing.
M: We've never done a poster for a band we disliked. And I don't think that we've worked with any one artist extensively enough to impact their "look," but it has happened with venues we've worked for.

What are you two listening to right now?
M: Some of the newer records I like are the new Xiu Xiu, The Unicorns, Frog Eyes, The Ponys. When we print, it's usually Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Love, Black Sabbath, X, Mission of Burma, Soft Boys, stuff like that. It's all good music but it's more about finding nice mid-tempo stuff that is still rocking so that the music doesn't mess up our printing. Rhythm is everything. A lot of bands that can't comply have been "banned" from the studio, like DAT Politics and Lightning Bolt, because our pace becomes too frantic and freaked out.
J: I listen to a lot of WFMU over the computer while I'm at work. I'm obsessed with Scott Williams' show�he's the best. I also recently found myself blown away by the second Soft Machine record. It's worth seeking out. I'm just a doofus record collector who creams himself whenever he finds a Uruguayan psych record or some ridiculous piece of pop detritus or whatever.

Who's on your dream-list of bands you'd like to poster for?
J: I'd like to do more for psych and improvisational rock groups. We never get picked for those kinds of groups (I guess people don't think we're "right" for the music), but that's the kind of stuff I listen to all day long. And the posters are usually pretty lousy because�and this hearkens back to a previous question�the artists doing them just refer back to a long-established set of imagery associated with the genres, which blows. The bands deserve a lot better than just the millionth re-hash of some old poster in a coffee table book.
Of all of the out-of-reach musicians out there, I think I'd most like to do a poster for Caetano Veloso, who gets doubly fucked because he's associated with psych-rock and he's not from this country, so if they aren't giving him a stock psych look, they give him a stock "world beat" look, which is even more insulting.
M: Honestly, I'm not that choosy. There are hundreds of bands that I'd be thrilled to do something for. Well, there's at least a hundred� We just got to do one for Old Time Relijun, who are so great�so anyway, you can scratch that one off the list.

I always imagine the poster scene as being rife with ruthless competition, split into warring tribal factions all competing for a piece of their favorite band's next tour. If that were the case, who's on your team, and who in the scene do you draw inspiration from?
J: The world of poster art is really competitive. It's so competitive that sometimes I wonder if people are going to come over to our house and kick the living shit out of us.
M: I mean, we came from an art background, so we're used to competition, but competition in an art school setting is purely theoretical�there's no real practical reason for it. Shouting someone down in a classroom won't get you a job, or deny you a job. It's all academic. Now, we're in a fairly small group of artists who are competing for an extremely finite number of jobs, and people will do just about anything to gain an advantage.
J: I would say that we're some of the meekest poster artists around. We're always just struggling to preserve our tiny little piece of territory.
M: We draw inspiration from so many poster artists, particularly the Chicago group of poster artists: Jay Ryan, Dan Grzeca, Steve Walters, Nick Butcher, Keith Herzik. We love Kevin Mercer in Philadelphia, Mike Budai in Pittsburgh, Shawn Wolfe and Jesse Ledoux in Seattle, Mark Pedini in Austin. Basically, if you've ever drawn an animal, we love you. Aesthetic Apparatus got their start here in Madison (they've since moved on to greener pastures), and they've been a big help to us as we've started out.
J: We're currently involved with Black Rainbow, which means we get to work with so many artists we've admired for so long, like Serigraphie Populaire, Gun Sho, and Jeremy Wabiszczewicz, and so many great up-and-coming artists. It's a really cool project.

You excel at exposing multiple layers in your prints, giving them a depth and presence that other printmakers struggle to produce or just ignore entirely. How did this aspect of your work develop? :
J: That kind of stuff�printing purposefully off-register, printing transparent color over black line, printing "hidden" layers underneath flats, printing varnish on varnish on varnish�that stuff is meant to engage the viewer, to involve them in the process of printing by leaving clues as to how specific effects were achieved.
M: Serigraphie Populaire and Art Chantry were both a big influence to us in that regard. Nobody gets as much out of each layer as Seripop or Chantry. They work each layer like a dog.
J: It's always been funny to me to hear fine art printmakers deride screenprinting. They always complain that the ink just sits there on the surface of the paper, and that the ink isn't opaque enough to hide the underprinting, and that each layer of ink seems to exist in and of itself, that the layers never come together into a completely cohesive whole. These things are all true, but these are the things that attracted us to the medium. Each of these things can be used to great effect, if you just approach them a little differently.
M: What we're trying to achieve is something that looks as good from twenty feet away as it does in your hands, which I think is a chief concern of most poster artists. But if the viewer bothers to take the time to really look, we want to have something in there to reward them for their close inspection, some information that isn't readily apparent from a distance. In the end, even if you don't like what we've done, we at least want to give you a hell of a lot to look at.
J: I think the main thing, which we haven't mentioned, that makes us different from a lot of other screenprinters is that we aren't using screenprinting as a tool to faithfully recreate a drawing. From the outset, we're making a screenprint, not a drawing, and so we're able to give the interplay of layers some special consideration.
M: But to an extent, we're still making a black line drawing and filling it in with color. I've got no problem with that. I like coloring books.

Since you work collaboratively, I was hoping you'd each take a turn to express your partner's strengths as a designer/printmaker/artist.
J: Melissa is one of the best technical printmakers I've ever met. My prints were a disaster before I met her. She is a veritable encyclopedia of print know-how. Whatever's not printing, she can get it back. She may scream and throw things before it's all over, but it will be motherfucking back�OR ELSE!
M: James knows a lot about computers. I went to Catholic school. I never learned these things. We had a computer�it was a Zenith brand computer, I believe. It may have been a Colecovision that someone stenciled the word "computer" onto. He's used his computer knowledge to develop a more streamlined method of making prints. Everything we do is vector-based now, and I know that people have horrible associations with vector art, but James manages to completely escape the "look" of vector art. The way we're doing things now gives us a lot more freedom to make the kind of prints we want to make. We're not as tied up in process as we used to. Which is great, because in my opinion the rigors of process should never be used as an excuse for poor printing.

How about each other's weaknesses?
J: Melissa's weaknesses are cookies and tendonitis.
M: James is, perhaps, too awesome.

Is it hard working so closely with the person you love?
J: The work isn't hard. I think it's a lot easier to work with someone that you love, because you know that no matter what disagreement you have, at the end of the day, you know that you have their total support. The only real difficulty is that people are obsessed with knowing the division of labor. They always want to know who did what, who did more, who's in charge of this element or that element, and that can be extremely discouraging and stressful. I don't even know where the impulse comes from to ask�I don't know if people are wrapped up in the idea of individual achievement, or if they just want to be able to say, "Well, I spoke to them and I know that so-and-so is the real person who does all the work. It's really crummy, considering how much work we both put in, that people want to pick it apart.
M: It's especially annoying because it seems like it's always drawn across gender lines. Girls want to believe that I don't do any work and I'm replaceable�and guys think the same thing about James.

There are a lot of woodland creatures kicking it human-style in your work. Care to comment on your predilection for anthropomorphism?
M: Well, animals are awesome� and I'm not really interested in people or their bullshit.
J: There's no commentary in our use of anthropomorphic animals anymore. It's just a part of our shared visual language.

Let's say a motorcycle-riding bear and a couple of his bunny-rabbit buddies want to get shit-faced at the local pub. What kind of beer would they order, or are they the kind of heavy drinkers who go straight for a bottle of liquor?
M: The bear would use his teeth and shotgun Natty Ice right out of a tallboy can. He'd do this over and over until he either got sick or ran out of money. I think he'd use special bear-type money, with pictures of famous bears on it. The rabbits would probably drink gin gimlets or tiny, rabbit sized bottles of doppelbock and be quietly mortified by their friend's behavior.
J: This is a ridiculous question. Now you're just making fun of us.

You have kind of an obvious love of cartoon imagery, and I was wondering if you'd break down your top ten favorite old-school cartoons for us. (If you both want to answer, you can just take 5 each.)
M: Rocky & Bullwinkle. The hand-lettered type they used totally destroys. Bill Peet-era Disney films. Black and white Mickey Mouse cartoons, when they were still violent and weird. Chuck Jones. And everyone thinks I'm joking when I say that I love Archie Comics Digest, but I do. It's so cheaply printed, it's beautiful.
J: Peanuts, in a big way; UPA animated stuff, especially commercials; Popeye and Krazy Kat, both animated and in comics; Any Hanna-Barbera cartoon where things are so cheaply done that everyone seems to be scuttling around sideways like a crab.

Do you dig any new-school animation, and if so what are your faves?
J: I really liked Futurama. We loved it when, for a split second, Saturday Night Live ran Maakies in place of Saturday TV Funhouse. That was great. The complete lack of laughter from the studio audience� it was awesome.
M: I like some of the stuff on Adult Swim. Mostly, I like that there's cartoons on late at night. Comics-wise, we really like Marc Bell and Johnny Ryan. It's funny�for all of this "TV Cartoon Revival" business, the best stuff is still in print comics.

Having seen some of the really hilarious Flash animation you've done, I'm forced to ask the obvious: Do you have a desire to work more heavily in animation, to see your characters and designs in that format?
J: As a kid, I always thought that I'd like to go into animation. As a teenager, I saw the kind of people that worked in animation, and that I was not one of them. Animators were true geektards, studying their face in the mirror for the perfect "squash and stretch," and reading big books about how to ape the drawing style of some classic animator. It struck me as kind of pathetic. Which is why it was so cool when Flash broke, because it put animation back into the hands of true amateurs�kids with a web site and a very vague understanding of the program can still make something extraordinarily cool. I'm not terribly interested in "mastery," in printmaking or in animation. I much prefer anything that pushes the limits of the definition of the medium, and that's what Flash has done to animation. I think if Melissa and I continued to pursue animation, it would be all in the Flash format.
M: The animation that we've done has always been conceived of differently than traditional animation, in that it's usually a sequence of events that repeats, or an event that goes on way too long, for comic effect (hopefully). I'm not interested in the standard story structure of an animated cartoon. I've always been much more interested in the static moment. I don't care what the bear and the bunnies did for the rest of the day�if they went antiquing, or mowed the lawn, or made out�that's their business.

Have you ever experimented with injecting some narrative into your work, giving your characters some dialogue and/or back-story? Are you interested in doing anything serialized, either as a comic strip or comic book style?
M: We have done some comics, and we're working on some more right now. It's a little handmade comic book screenprinted in stereoscopic 3-D. It'll come with the 3-D glasses, of course. Narrative was a big part of our work for a long time, but slowly all of the speech bubbles became blank. Maybe we've just run out of things to say.
J: The last comic we made, "Bad Doctor," had just the vaguest semblance of a continuous narrative. It ended up being like a series of obscene New Yorker cartoons. The reason for that was that we didn't know how many pages we could have, and needed a way to cut parts if necessary. It ended up being really fucking funny, to us at least. I think that's the direction that we're going to go with in the future. It's the best way to avoid tendencies of the dreaded bio-comic, which are really embarrassing to read at any skill level.
M: Bio-comics, boo! Nobody's interested in us! They've already stopped reading this interview!

What about 3-D? Do you imagine ever seeing your characters rendered in plastic, vinyl or plush?
J: Yes, definitely! It's a pretty common impulse among poster artists right now, to want to move into mass-produced vinyl toys and that kind of stuff. It makes a lot of sense, because we're all already working in multiples, and we're trying to keep our work as inexpensive and accessible as possible, and we're just completely berserk for material culture, as a group. So it seems like a really natural next step. And it's not as expensive as it used to be! It's getting to the point where Melissa and I might be able to do it, which is exciting. We've done a lot of 3-D work in the past, but in the end it always seems like such a waste of time, all that time and work for just one object. It must be that printmaker mentality creeping in.
M: The trick will be to pick the one character that'll get made into a toy. Every time we make a new poster, we have to come up with new characters or at least some variations on existing characters. Settling on just one would be really tough.
This winter, we did some stuffed animals out of fabric that we'd screenprinted onto, but in the end we weren't able to devote the amount of attention to the project that we needed to. We were spread so thin already. Plus, I broke four needles. One flew off and hit me in the eye. It was at that moment that I thought, "Can't I find a 12-year old to do this for me? Isn't that the American way, really?" Come on, people.

There's kind of a weird juxtaposition going on in your work between the comedic quality of your subject matter and the technical precision of your process. Looking at it inspires both giggles and "HowTheyDidThat?" gaping. If it weren't for the band names, gig dates and venue information I'd just assume I was staring at some rockin' good fine art screen-prints. Have you had any gallery experience, and is this a direction in which you'd like to take Little Friends of Printmaking?
J: We aren't currently represented by any galleries. I think that right now, we're trying to throw all of our energies into poster art. We have a chance to really establish ourselves within the community, but that means hard and continuous work, and most of all, focus. I can't help but think that if we were making art prints again, that it would diminish the quality of our posters.
M: We certainly wouldn't turn down gallery representation, and we do have a background in museum work and installation art. These are things that interest us greatly. In the past, we've worked so hard on the conceptual basis of the installation that the artwork almost became secondary, and I grew to dislike that. It was all too ephemeral.

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Clearly, these printmakers are the new American Heroes.

Posted by: M. Swann at May 27, 2004 5:14 AM

I'm sure that Little Friends of Printmaking would have no trouble finding willing twelve year olds to do their bidding. Or twenty-somethings, for that matter. Actually.... call me, I have safety goggles.

Posted by: K. Pociask at February 2, 2007 8:44 PM
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