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In Print: The Art of Zines

New exhibit celebrates underground publishing's eye-grabbing imagery.



What is it about zines? They simply won’t die. In an era of instantaneous communication and high-resolution computer graphics, it’s surprising how people stubbornly embrace these handmade magazines created by passionate individuals.

Zines, you may remember, had their moment in the sun about 20 years ago or so, when national media zeroed in on the quirky cult of self-publishers and mail artists who traded their work through the mail and at zine fairs. And then it seemed to drop off the national radar. By 1999, longtime zinester Johnny Marr (no, not that Johnny Marr!) declared, “Zines are dead.”

So what changed? The Internet drained off a lot of the idle chatter that had plagued zines, and a new generation of makers embraced the art form. Increasingly, the energy has moved away from the mail and to zine shows. A lot of today’s zinesters have embroidered their work with artistic skill that ranges from artful to over-the-top. This is eye-catching, underground design work. What’s more, these artists seem to be almost rediscovering the tactile qualities of print, embracing technologies as varied as cut-and-paste collage, photocopying, silkscreening and even 19th-century letterpress.

A lot of this work will be on display this weekend at an opening at the Work: Detroit gallery called In Print, an exhibition of small press publications, zines, art books, comics, experimental printed matter and original art from artists who self-publish. The curator is Work: Detroit employee Andy Gabrysiak, 26, a 2009 illustration graduate of the College for Creative Studies. 

He published his first zine five years ago, with the help of his friends, but got a bit more serious about it in recent years, attending zine shows and fairs, meeting like-minded souls and, no doubt, buying lots of comics. Last year, he hit the Brooklyn Zine Fest, the Pittsburgh Zine Fair and the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo. Notably, however, he’s seen a rise in activity in Michigan.

“We had the Grand Rapids Zine Fest, and then the Mid-Michigan Zine Fair, and the Detroit Art Book Fair in October,” he says. “It’s the first year for all those things. There seems to be a spike where people are more interested right now. At the Detroit fair, probably half the exhibitors were from Detroit.”

Describing a typical fair, Gabrysiak says, “It’s like a flea-market type of feel, people just set up tables and sell their books. Usually there’ll be a reading or a workshop or a day’s worth of panel discussions. I’d usually be selling zines and prints and posters I had done for bands and stuff.”

Working with the gallery’s director of exhibitions, Stephen Schudlich, Gabrysiak has thrown a spotlight on what he’s discovered with a show that takes a serious look at some out-there art. Visitors can expect to see a few striking pieces on the walls, of course, but there will also be display shelves of the actual self-published works, from the simple to the saddle-stitched, that the public is invited to touch, feel, peruse, even smell. 

Schudlich says, “I think the premise of the show is that tactile element. Zines require a degree of personal, physical involvement, hands-on, in the process of making it. You have limited, numbered runs, almost making it precious, you know?” He picks up a zine and says, “There’s only 20 of these. It’s evolved to that point, and Andy’s got some great examples. They are valuable as opposed to disposable.”

Yesterday’s throwaway broadside is a craft relic? Things seem to have come full circle. Who’d have thought that, for instance, a new generation would embrace vinyl records? Schudlich doesn’t mince words: “People want to touch shit. That’s what they want. They want to look at things, but they’re tired of not being able to touch them. These things, they have a feel, a smell, and when they get bent on a corner that changes their look. That’s something that’s good and wholesome.”

Or as Gabrysiak says, “They’re in the exhibit to be read. They won’t be put under glass.”

Gabrysiak is a canny curator, putting together a show that’s fun to look at. He says, “There’s a lot of comics, because that’s what I like, but we have some photography and collage work too. Of course, we’re really happy to have work by David Sandlin, an illustrator who did a lot of work for RAW magazine, does a lot of work for the The New Yorker, and he’s the chair of illustration at the School of Visual Arts.”

A professional illustrator at a DIY-oriented show? It’s no heresy. In fact, underground print media have been a sort of farm team for the big leagues, with such illustrators as Eric Drooker and Peter Kuper getting hired by the big magazines.

Gabrysiak agrees, “A lot of my favorite cartoonists started out in self-publishing or are currently doing that.”

Schudlich adds, “A lot of these people you see in The New Yorker, they all did some time doing these sort of things, and some of them still do it. Ian Huebert, who’s in the show, is an acclaimed visual narrative artist in his own right, and he still does these things, as well as David Sandlin. A lot of today’s illustrators come from that RAW magazine well.”

If periodicals look to zines for design ideas, it’s because they’re loaded with visual verve. Schudlich says, “From a graphic design standpoint, some of these are absolutely beautiful. There are definite typographic chops at work here. There is a graphic design sensibility. I mean, there’s stuff that’s ‘garage’ and its charm lies in the fact that it’s put together by an untrained person, but there are pieces in this show that are absolutely wonderful in every aspect, the paper that’s selected, the colors, the fonts.”

What makes zines such an inviting playground to examine is that the artists are less interested in making a profit or pleasing a client than pursuing expression. It feels like fun. It’s funny, irreverent, bizarre, from the Cthulhu-like ink drawings of Chris Pottinger to Nick Drnaso’s cartoonish line drawings to John Maggie’s hilarious flip book of a wizard sprinkling a potion on himself that produces an erection.

Some of the work seems to be a reaction against the high-tech trappings of today’s computer-generated imagery: pencil smeared around illustrations, sprayed or splattered pigments, even a zine that boldly named itself Offline (don’t worry, folks — you can visit them online).

But that’s what zines are, a place outside the status quo where makers can get their work out there, circumventing editors, and creating a space for dialogue and DIY spirit. Schudlich says, “The intent may not be that they’re going to fly out the door, but certainly not every self-publisher will be bothered if they don’t fly out the door. Some of the original initial purpose of a zine was its accessibility, its ability to turn up in a coffeehouse. They didn’t cost dozens or hundreds of dollars to produce each one. The point was to get them out in the street.”

A program of events coincides with the show, beginning with the opening reception on Friday, Jan. 10, where local self-publishers will appear. The night’s readers are Rotland Press publisher Ryan Standfest; Schudlich’s 9-year-old son, Finn, who will read from his zine Butthead; and Stupor publisher Steve Hughes, who will be premiering his newest issue, produced on reflective gold stock in collaboration with the Hygienic Dress League. For those interested in purchasing zines, this may be the best night, as no doubt several zinesters will be on hand with backpacks full of material to hawk. On Jan. 24, Signal-Return’s Paul Goodrich will join Gabrysiak to conduct a two-day zine-making and risography workshop live in the gallery, producing finished zines from material by workshop participants. Though the $30 “intro to zine publishing” class was almost fully booked, the public is invited to watch the creative process.

Schudlich is obviously proud of Gabrysiak and his show. He beams when he says, “Andy is a steward, making sure this stuff remains in the light, participating in the dialogue, finding new surprises every day. Andy does it very quietly. It has really been wonderful to see this unfold. I mean, it could have been a show full of Rock ‘n’ Bowl fliers. But it’s got some crazy stuff!”

In Print opens 6-9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 10, at Work: Detroit, 3663 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Exhibit appears until Feb. 28.

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