James Victore: Self-deprecation, sermonising and staying hard

With his unpatriotic attitude and interest in ‘unholy sex’, James Victore is a designer with opinions, as exhibited in a new book of his work

When the novelist Kingsley Amis died, his son – Martin Amis – expressed regret and relief: “It invigorates you … it makes you feel that you’ve come into your own seniority at last.” The son’s confession provided ammunition for numerous gossipy columns. I was reminded of Amis’s candour when reading James Victore’s explanation for the title of his new book, Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss? The subtitle was something that Victore’s father – a military man – used to say to put his son in his place. Victore senior makes a number of appearances in this book surveying the New York designer’s career. On the poster wrapped around the cover, he appears – figuratively – in a swagger portrait of the kind once favoured in corporate headquarters (think Mad Men). Victore junior’s trademark black brushstrokes have been applied to give this stern paternal face a cheeky Duchampian moustache. Yet, at the same time, Victore repeatedly flags up his affection for his father. He taught the designer to be a ‘man’. What this means – as Victore makes clear in the last work illustrated in the book – is ‘staying hard’. (And, for those who did not get the double entendre, the poster promoting an AIGA lecture by Victore features a bone). Oedipus, the castration complex … Freud would have a lot to work on here.

Master of concision
Victore is not, however, a seething mess of neuroses. In fact, he is a master of concision. Since the early 1990s he has produced high impact posters – often on political themes  – as well as working in editorial for the New York Times and designing promotional material for a small roster of up-market clients. Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss? reproduces 48 projects, clustered together with engaging commentaries by their designer. Victore
draws maximum effect from an economic set of tools: sketches are made from quick brushstrokes; hand-lettering zips across the page, sometimes approximating vintage penmanship; and printed images are blown-up to reveal half-tone dots and inky glitches.

Technique is important but, as Victore’s designs demonstrate, it is the ideas that count. A self-initiated and self-funded poster pasted up around the streets of New York in 1992 when the celebrations were underway for the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America, for instance, features Alexander Gardner’s 1872 portrait of Running Antelope, a Sioux Indian leader. Victore scrawled the features of a skull over his face.

Columbus’s triumph was a death sentence for many native nations. Thousands succumbed to smallpox, a disease that arrived with Europeans known as ‘rotting face’. Victore’s poster uttered a fact which was well known but rarely expressed during the Columbus hullabaloo. 

Not all his designs are this angry, but most display Victore’s insistence on having an opinion. “How can anybody make anything of value without an opinion?” he asks. “You can’t do good work for a client who is afraid of telling the truth, and following money almost always leads to poor work.” Victore has had the good fortune of having good clients. Yohji Yamamoto, the School of Visual Arts and the New York Times Magazine have all given him free reign. And when, in the past, a client’s nerve has failed and one of his designs been pulled, Victore gets his own back today by retelling these falling-outs in Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss? This, of course, is how artists in the 20th century guaranteed their place in the ‘avant-garde’. What is better evidence of one’s place on the cutting edge than suppression? What troubles these clients is usually Victore’s interest in sex (rutting creatures and pin-up imagery) and his critical views of jingoism. Unpatriotic attitudes and unholy sex are, of course, issues which cause Americans, outside liberal islands like New York, to hit the panic button.

Victore may have sailed into New York City in the late 1980s to make his career but his work is anchored in Europe. Polish poster artist Henryk Tomaszewski and his student 2 3 Grapus designer, Pierre Bernard, loom large. In fact, some of Victore’s designs quote the work of his heroes. His 2000 advertisement for Moët & Chandon – a champagne-filled leg – refers to a Tomaszewski poster from 1973. And Victore’s decapitated Mickey Mouse – a critique of the Disney Corps’ investment in Times Square – has a cousin in the French group’s use of this icon to point to the political effects of entertainment. Like his idols, Victore places high value on the hand. For Grapus in the 1970s, “writing done by hand appeals to the human element”. Schooled in Marx, they had little truck with graphic systems and techniques which alienated producers or consumers. For Victore, the man-made marks are signs of the maverick.

As a book, Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss? is an engaging object filled with self-deprecation and sermonising in equal measure. Under the dust-jacket wrapper, Victore includes a long list of rejected titles for this book. They include Tombstone, Do As I Say Not As I Do, Stop Copying Me, Stefan Sagmeister’s Greatest Hits and My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys. Cowboys in Victore’s world are defined not by their love of the range but their irrepressible individualism. His Pantheon has few spaces for graphic designers or illustrators. Paul Rand, Wim Crouwel or Otl Aicher would be far too virtuous. It is the mavericks who take centre-stage: Evel Knievel, Serge Gainsbourg, Simon John Ritchie (Sid Vicious), Charles Bukowski and Guillaume Apollinaire (for his poetry and his pornography).

Hero or Victim?
Commissioned in 2003 to contribute to an exhibition in the Netherlands exploring the idea of ‘armour’, Victore produced two kinds of button badges. One was inscribed with the word ‘hero’ set into a loosely sketched laurel leaf: the other was marked with a skull bearing the legend ‘victim’. Visitors were asked to wear one or the other but were given no choice which. When asked about how they felt about being branded in this Manichean fashion, their answers seemed to surprise Victore. “Curiously,” he writes, “most attendees felt more comfortable with the label of ‘victim’ than that of ‘hero’.” Hero is, of course, a badge Victore wears with pride.

David Crowley runs the Critical Writing in Art and Design MA at the Royal College of Art in London. James Victore’s studio website is at jamesvictore.com

Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss? is published by Abrams; £24.99. More details at abramsbooks.co.uk

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