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Illuminating Manuscripts
Jan van Toorn Sprinkles Politics Onto The Page Through His Design Decisions
Van Toorn's "Je Ne Cherche Pas, Je Troube."

Van Toorn's "Je Ne Cherche Pas, Je Troube."


"Hommage a Toulouse Lautrec"

"Hommage a Toulouse Lautrec"

The Visual Journalism of Jan van Toorn

Jan van Toorn’s graphic career started out benignly enough. He first held a journeyman position at Dutch company Mulder Holland, applying floral design transfers onto blank ceramic dinnerware. Perhaps there was something about the repetitious insincerity and lack of authenticity in this frugal craft, the mass-production of such artifice on behalf of household amenities that first incited his course--that, along with an instinctively sharp mind, which began to take an interest in other forms of propaganda, the manipulations and disseminations of information, and the conveyance of meaning and controversy in design.

It was the mid-1950s in the Netherlands when van Toorn’s concepts began to evolve from serving pieces into a canonical media ecology. In Canada, Marshall McLuhan, for some preceding years, had been turning the world’s attention to the influence of the media culture, further empowering--and exposing--its practitioners. But long before that, the humble, provocative hand-printed poster had claimed its unique authority in the land of subversive visual idiom.

The Maryland Institute College of Art’s extensive retrospective The Visual Journalism of Jan van Toorn, in the Fox Building’s Meyerhoff Gallery, is guest-curated by Els Kuijpers, who has brought it here from the Hague, where both van Toorn and Kuijpers reside. It is an energetic and intentionally disorienting presentation of this internationally recognized graphic designer’s ideals.

You will need to feed your parking meter several quarters to ground yourself adequately in Kuijpers’ systematized maelstrom of images and their rationales, to have time to attempt to gather the information from the interestingly illegible red pages of the show’s catalog, and also to take in On Display, a free-spirited companion interactive show curated by Ellen Lupton, MICA’s director of graphic design. On Display is a virtual playpen of graphic-design and curatorial options that bound outward from practices that van Toorn’s compositions helped launch.

For the installation of “AND/OR: On the CONTRAdiction in the Work of Jan van Toorn,” Kuijpers has papered journalism’s most notorious images from the past onto the gallery walls to set her stage. They represent some of the volatile motivations of van Toorn’s early creative period. Among these are photos of politicians such as John F. Kennedy, Vladimir Lenin, and other popular celebrities that evidence the impact of history’s Great Man theory. But strewn in with them are references to Ben Shahn along with journalistic shots that reveal current events through the face and gesture of the proletariat, that massing populace whose collective actions van Toorn understood ultimately determined convention, and to whom he directed his greatest consideration and efforts at enlightenment.

Under lectern-high, sawhorse-supported vitrines, van Toorn’s various graphic achievements run a raised track through four galleries. Other works have been elevated on high poles as though they are a mob of protesters or a caucus in the rafters. The presented examples emphasize the artist’s calendars but also include numerous posters for art exhibitions, performances, or architecture, and some are of a more directly political nature. All are political to some degree.

The text on the exhibited materials is Dutch, and there are precious few supporting labels, making precise translation difficult. Van Toorn’s visual lexicon, though, is an encyclopedia of familiar elements. Your inability to seize upon his posters’ exact meaning may, in fact, be an opportunity to judge their raw graphic power.

Van Toorn certainly has his semiotic fondnesses. He loves the illusionary process of printing, exaggerating the three-color process with magenta, cyan, and yellow halftones to invoke the detached reality and insubstantial particulate of journalism. He collages disparate black and white pictures together and splices their affinities or paradoxes with a slender halftone color image. He scribbles vulnerable hand lettering onto authoritative pictographs or signage. Font sizes shrink and swell on the same line. Bold, prominent numbers are a favorite device for holding all his typographical conflicts at bay. It’s hard to know if he designs calendars because they are notoriously full of numbers, or if numbers invade his work as a persistent byproduct of many calendar commissions.

Because contradiction is van Toorn’s modus operandi, empty space is another condition that he occasionally claims. When he visits empty space, a mandalic circle often shows up, whether as a scribble, a head, an eye, or a fried egg. This circle functions almost like a sink drain sucking out all of the evocative excesses of his usually exploding graphic matter and perception. But it’s a momentary respite, before the blank plate fills up again with more crowding ideas.


Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper