In 1986, author Steven Heller wrote the introduction to a Print magazine feature on a new MFA in Illustration at the School of Visual Arts. “The two-year program is designed to encourage artists, be they painters, cartoonists, or illustrators, to expand the boundaries of illustration into the realm of journalism.” Judging by the scads of pages and covers now displayed on what may be the world’s largest magazine rack in SVA’s new show, “We Tell Stories,” it’s clear the MFAI has accomplished its mission. And that’s just one wall in an expansive exhibition filling the school’s cavernous Chelsea Gallery.
Today the MFA’s official name is “Illustration as Visual Essay.” The program has taken 20 students per year since its inception 30 years ago, and more than half of those (that’s 300+) are represented in the exhibition. In fact, there’s so much work gracing so many important magazine and book titles that you begin to wonder what the state of illustration was before MFAI, whose progeny appear to be ubiquitous.
Highlights of the main gallery include a vitrine dedicated to Rabid Rabbit, a comic book anthology founded by alums Paul Hoppe and C. M. Butzer featuring an array of artists and as many drawing styles, and Nora Krug’s Shadow Atlas, a compendium of ghosts from around the world rendered in mesmerizing primary colors. Allowed to pick up and peruse volumes on the open shelves, visitors might easily lose track of time.
There are even several instances of artwork leaping off the page and onto the streets. For example, earlier this year Jonathan Bartlett, class of 2010, created a vibrant mural on the exterior of Ralph Lauren, Denim & Supply in Greenwich Village. But most pieces are conceived for publications and relatively small in scale; indeed, some of the work is intended for small-scale readers. One entire gallery, designed as a cozy kids’ lounge by alums Sara Varon and Aya Kakeda, is dedicated to children’s books. Varon’s whimsical characters populate the walls and carpet, and here one finds a few of the program’s best-known graduates, like Stephen Savage, creator of the Where’s Walrus and Polar Bear Morning books. By comparison, the third and fourth galleries, stuffed full of products, packaging, and posters feel less cohesive, if no less comprehensive.
That this MFA formula works is obvious, and it’s a testament to the guiding hand of chair Marshall Arisman, who founded the department in 1984. One of the program’s particular perks is that students can invite their dream advisor to work with them on the second-year thesis project. Take alum Joanna Neborsky, whose thesis guru was acclaimed artist Maira Kalman. Neborsky’s thesis-turned-book, Three Line Novels, is a set of illustrations based on short, grisly news items submitted by Parisian writer Félix Fénéon to the newspaper Le Matin in 1906. Obscure? Yes, but also utterly intriguing. The work feels relevant not because the content is current, but because, like good design of any kind, it communicates.