Matt Distel and Christian Strike are like kids ripping open a gift as they pull the bubble wrap off of the latest Charley Harper picture to arrive from storage. "Rocket Belt, Mechanical Horse and Automatically Controlled Car" has these thirtysomething gallery directors reliving their childhood in the 1970s.
"That's the badass thing that I always wanted to draw in the seventh grade!" Distel says, pointing to a man who is blasting off in a blue jump suit. "It's like a jet pack! And there's a car with jet fuel power things shooting out of the back of it!"
Strike is equally fired up about "Earth and Satellite" just a few dashes of color to suggest the "big blue marble" and a spherical satellite in orbit.
"This is like the Death Star seven years before Star Wars, right!" Strike says.
Distel and Strike focus on the retro era for their second exhibition at Country Club gallery. Charley Harper: Works on Paper 1961-1970 showcases illustrations Harper did for several publications, including The Golden Book of Biology and The Animal Kingdom. These are the books that taught kids about the natural world, sparing none of the gory details.
And the exhibition provides just a taste of what Harper illustrated for magazines like Ford Times and the Sohioan.
The Cincinnati-based artist passed away in June of 2007; Harper's son, Brett, worked closely with the gallery to bring in this collection.
The 20-piece show, primarily gouache paintings on illustration board, makes up Harper's work product. They are meant to be photo ready, not meant to hang in a gallery. You can see Wite-Out masking a portion of a man's leg or erasing a worm that dangled over a bird's nest. There are dabs of paint in the corners of the illustration board, probably evidence of the artist working out what colors he wanted to use in the illustration. And there are alignment markings, bits of masking tape and handwritten notes assigning page numbers to the illustrations.
"Make line drawing 50 percent black," one notation reads.
These paintings were not delicate objects. The illustration board is often cut into irregular shapes, which Distel explains is the artist simply being frugal. He didn't want to waste a single inch of material. The paintings might come back from the printer a little beat up. In the illustration for "Structure of the DNA Molecule," it looks like a splash of coffee left a streak right down the center of the DNA strand.
"We made the decision to exhibit them as objects," Distel says. "Charlie really treated these things as objects anyway."
They might be work product, but they are now on display as the final product. And when Distel flips through a copy of Animal Kingdom to show me some of the printed illustrations, I see there's no comparison to the original paintings.
"They're much better when you see the actual illustration as opposed to the reproduction," Strike says. "The colors are more vibrant, the edges are sharper."
Distel is getting excited again.
"The lines are so fluid, just really stunning," he says, indicating all the arcs and circles and geometric shapes that, when put together, become an animal. "They are still work product so you can see where, you know, this one still has the trace of his hand in a very honest way."
Today an illustrator might render an image on a computer. All of the mistakes and subtle evidence of the artist's hand have been erased. But Harper was illustrating before computers, and while he had plenty of rulers and French curves in his studio, he was just as likely to work freehand.
Almost every drawing at Country Club sold before the show was hung. The directors have set up a viewing room in the back for browsing the Harper prints, which are also selling like hot cakes. Charley Harper is huge right now. Interest in his work is exploding. Strike has seen books like The Animal Kingdom selling on eBay for $1,000. Distel says the gallery gets a lot of out-of-town visitors, and when they walk in their jaws drop. "Who is this guy?" they want to know.
While out-of-towners sing the praises of Harper, his work can actually be a tougher sell in his hometown.
"He's so ubiquitous," Strike says. "He's in every dentist office, he's in every park lodge, he's everywhere. You might like it, you might enjoy it, but you might also dismiss it in a certain way because it's all around."
Distel and Strike originally intended to work with younger contemporary artists. While this is still their mission, a chance to display Harper has put a new spin on things. Country Club has plans to work with other locals like Justin Green from the underground comic movement and Henry Chalfant who documented the 1970s New York City graffiti scene in the film Style Wars. Artists like Harper, Green and Chalfant are influencing the next generation of artists Country Club will put on its walls. ©
CHARLEY HARPER: WORKS ON PAPER 1961-1970 continues at Country Club through May 3. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.