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Graphic Ambition

Railing Against "The Emptiness of Fine Art," Luba Lukova Fights to Give Graphic Design its Due

Cutting Edge: Luba Lukova's stark, spare style adds edginess to even her simplest images, like a poster she designed for a production of Romeo and Juliet.
Tim Hill

By Tim Hill | Posted 5/7/2003

Luba Lukova

Luba Lukova

Spur Design's Propaganda Gallery through Sept. 15

"Art has to move you and design does not, unless it's a good design for a bus," British painter David Hockney once said.

That's the old saw, anyway, for graphic design, an artistic profession that usually serves commerce. Get the consumer, the reader, the user, whomever, from opening paragraph to epilogue, from click to click, from impulse to purchase, effortlessly and elegantly. It's rarely the graphic designer's job to do anything more than inform, guide, or sell. Art is art, the thinking goes, and design is design.

Unless you're Luba Lukova, a Bulgarian-born, New York-based graphic artist whose striking and thoughtful editorial illustrations and off-Broadway posters are on display at Spur Design's Propaganda Gallery in Hampden. To her, the distinction is meaningless.

"Art is not a definition, it is an experience," Lukova says from her Long Island City studio. "If it moves you, to me it doesn't matter how they call it. If I want to move people and make them think, that means I am doing art. Art with a capital A."

She rails against graphic design's relegation to the back pages of art criticism and the profession's reputation as a lightweight calling--a reputation fulfilled by a preponderance of schools graduating design majors with two-year degrees. They're "drowning the profession in mediocrity," she says.

Good design, which strives for something more than decoration, is often more relevant than contemporary art, Lukova argues. Design has in the past, at least, played a more prominent role.

She points to her own experiences in communist Bulgaria, where she grew up and studied, as well as in other impoverished and struggling countries. Chinese artists in the nascent democratic movement, she observes by way of example, have produced a body of interesting and vigorous work. "Good design always comes from places where there are social changes," Lukova notes. "People use it to express themselves.

"I was in South Africa recently, and you see that they need design to open their eyes about AIDS, to improve the literacy. This is where design is necessary, not in societies that have everything, and when designers are just a group of people who have a good time all the time."

As a poster designer for a theater company in Sofia, Bulgaria, Lukova worked among artists, writers, and actors who practiced their crafts despite a regime that prohibited free expression. "A lot of people wanted to change that, and they did it through their work," she recalls, "but unfortunately the work was not public."

In that environment, Lukova adds, "people didn't make such a distinction between design and art, so I was influenced not so much by design but by art in general. Very stimulating for me was to work in the theater and be among writers and directors and to make design which equals their work somehow, or enhances their work."

Post-communism, Lukova visited New York in 1991, after attending a poster show in Colorado, and decided to stay. She continued to make theater posters advertising off-Broadway shows.

Her award-winning work is powerful, iconic, and distinct. It's deceivingly simple, the result of long hours spent turning a complex idea into a metaphorical design without oversimplifying it. In contrast to the multilayered and overwrought design prevalent in the United States, she works in as few colors as possible, often only black and red on white.

Figures with elongated limbs and bodies often morph into other objects, their wide-eyed faces humanizing or terrifying depending on the message. In a piece created for The New York Times to illustrate an article about music banned by totalitarian regimes, a wincing figure's fingers are nailed to a flute. A poster for a production of Romeo and Juliet shows praying hands pierced by a sword. Lukova's style, reminiscent all at once of Picasso, German Expressionism, and Medieval illuminated texts, serves her dual goals of simplicity and timelessness. Her best work is open-ended, ambiguous, and can stand on its own, unlike more conventional, airtight editorial illustration, whose job is to serve a text, ad, or event.

"No matter the scale of the work I do, it's first and always the idea and the emotion and the meaning I put into it," she says. And it matters little if the piece is called fine art or graphic design. "If you put enough seriousness in what you do, people always respond to it, so I don't mind so much how the art criticism will label my work."

Lukova doesn't relate to gallery-bound modern art and the critics who make their living in its midst, preferring design's immediacy and relevance.

"I'm not personally inspired by contemporary fine art," she says. "To me, it has become something for spoiled people, very existential, for people who are in love with themselves. They don't think about the audience, just making something provocative for the sake of being provocative, but without saying something that means something to more people. To me, that's an empty shell, even more empty than the most superficial design.

"Design is something that people see every day, so why not use that?" Lukova asks in the end. "Replace the emptiness of fine art with meaning, which can be so easily in contact with the audience, using the form of the design."

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