AT FIRST GLANCE, there appears to be little relationship between the line drawings of a cartoon such as Nancy and Sluggo, and the Old English lettering of the banner of the newspaper in which the cartoon happens to be running. But there is a crucial connection between good cartoonery and fine calligraphy, and David McClelland's one-man show at Adams House proves this.
In his Lampoon cartoons, McClelland developed an incredible distinctiveness of style which is notable for a young artist. When one sees a McClelland cartoon, one knows it without reading his name.
And in this exhibition of lettering and line drawings, McClelland shows that his work is no chance flash of genius: that he has been involved in intensive investigations of line and form and letter which contribute to, complement, and fit in with the humor.
McClelland is obviously interested in formal, traditional calligraphy. The exhibit includes "The Whale," an old English poem which he wrote out in insular uncial letters on a regular page layout. Both the language and the letters are alien--they could be written in Islamic script and have equivalent elegant linear formality. But the letterlines and page forms have a universal meaning independent of phonetics or linguistics. They be-speak exoticness, magnificence, and respect-compelling beauty.
Taking another step away from the traditional page, one can impose additional meaning on words and letters by organizing them in pictorial images. Apollinaire did this, as do the concrete poets. McClelland works in this genre with Dylan Thomas' words from "Fern Hill":
Oh. As I Was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea.
He doesn't translate the poetry into visual language. Instead he substantiates it. The words are arranged in an abstract, somewhat organic form, that relaxes appropriately into an almost-horizontal at the end of the quotation. The letters deviate from typographic perfection to express something very human. Outlined in black ink, they graduate from yellow-green-yellow through yellow-green to a green "sea," composed with curlicue serifs which suggest wave crests.
Besides using words as images, artists often use them with images--poster art is a prime example of such lingual-visual communication because its declared purpose is to communicate.
IN A POSTER done last year for A Flea In Her Ear McClelland's art articulately advertises that the play was gay and bawdy and lively. His fuchsia and orange design, which includes an upside-down Art Nouveau lady with the usual flowing tresses, also proves his ability to organize a graphically coherent page. Highly original title letters with lacy curlings serifs and a plump curved "Georges Feydeau" add more Art Nouveau-type curvilinears appropriate to the late 19th century French farce.
The familiar McClellandisms (witty visual and literary interjections) enrich this poster. Plump black letters which form a compositionally important triangle read "Hundreds of boys across the sea: everything for democracy." The Boggie--an all-line quasi-doggie--stops at this poster before moving on to McClelland's Bayeux Tavestry, a facetious tapestry he designed for the Lampoon.
When McClelland applies his undiluted wit in a series of Boggie tales, "The Great Goodison Toad Hunt" and other cartoon stories it's hard to remember his calligraphy, quality of line, pictorial images or composition, because you're too busy laughing. But they're all still there, and more.
Plot is the most obvious new element in the stories. And McClelland's plots are the equal of any professional--like the tale of Arthur Gask, a prodigal mathematician who, after finding His Woman and losing her, notes of mathematics, "It may not be everything, but it is perfect."
PHOTOGRAPHY also serves humor. In "Miss American Icon" he "throws" photographs of a cross, and a star-shaped cutout of a face into a funny hand-scrawled wastebasket. The caption for this clever mixture of media is "old symbols out."
And McClelland's wit can be as pure a statement made by line, with line and on the subject of line as Steinberg's. Only he would put a typically cartoon-sketched "California Cheeseburger" on top of a semi-Ionic column, carefully drafted in the most accurate "Architect's Projection" style.
This highly sophisticated joining of visual and literary artistic parts makes the distinctive McClelland style a wonderful one that might someday be widely significant. But implicit in such complexity is the hazard of too-muchness. Very rarely, McClelland interjects one little irrelevancy that is just too irrelevant--it is this that makes "The Great Goodison Toad Hunt" a chore to re-read for the fifth time (if that can be termed a fault).
The show at Adams House indicates that McClelland has investigated and incorporated everything from ink line to plot line. He has plenty of time left to research perfection.