Like the poshest DIY ’zine fair you’ve ever been to, but with live silk-screen printing instead of cupcake sales and a neo-classical backdrop instead of a church hall, Pick Me Up took London’s East End graphic scene to the people.
Although only two miles as the crow flies, the Palladian pomp of Somerset House, located just off the Strand, is worlds away from the caffs and studios of Dalston.
PMU aimed to bring the two together and, in presenting the work of one of London’s most prolific design scenes to the wider public, pull off what was billed as the ‘UK’s first contemporary graphic art fair’.
It was the mastermind of curator Claire Catterall (who also has the successful V&A Village Fete event on her CV), whose aim was to “bring the best of contemporary illustration together in one place and allow people to see pieces in the flesh, rather than just on screen or in print”.
If they were lucky, she said on the exhibition’s opening night, they “might get in about 10,000 visitors”. The show was quick and cheap to put together, but would hopefully draw in the same crowds as the galleries’ blockbuster shows, like Nick Knight’s ShowStudio event last year.
They got this – and some. The fair pulled in 14,270 visitors, the people in the queues snaking round the courtyard, each paying £5 entry with the opportunity to take home prints by young and established artists from between £20 to £1,000, with Somerset House taking a relatively modest commission (compared to standard gallery rates) of 20%.
The idea is that visitors can buy all the pieces on show, says Catterall, but she bristles at the suggestion that prints are a way of buying art that suits modest budgets – a line of argument pursued by Pascal Johanssen, the curator of Illustrative (CR passim), an equivalent festival in Berlin.
“I hate the idea that illustration is just a type of affordable art – it’s just a different type of work,” she says. “All of the people here work on a commercial basis, as well as doing their personal work, and a lot don’t draw the distinction between the two styles they apply to the projects.”
UK illustrators Jess Wilson, James Joyce and Mr Bingo’s exhibits were complemented with work from emerging international names, including Hvass & Hannibal from Denmark, Siggi Eggertsson from Iceland and Ville Savimaa of Finland.
Alex Bec and Will Hudson of It’s Nice That were one of the UK-based collectives and galleries invited to “set up a ‘world of themselves’”. Their response was a temporary cinema that would show moving images on silver screen splendour rather than on monitors with tinny sound, much like their published projects aimed to showcase print in the best possible way.
Though disappointed that there wasn’t more original work produced specifically for the fair, and sceptical of its lasting impact, Bec feels that the event was a big success. “I was staggered by the amount of work that was being sold and it was great having people like Rob Ryan working there so the public could see the incredible skill that goes into it.”
One of the other – ahem– immersive installations of the fair was an enormous pair of white painted Styrofoam buttcheeks, courtesy of Le GUN collective. A few steps up a platform and a well-placed poke through a head-sized hole was rewarded with a view of an illustrated panorama within. And the faint self-consciousness that comes with knowing people have just watched you stick your head up an enormous bum.
Alex Spiro and Sam Arthur’s Nobrow, a print studio that publishes limited runs of screenprinted books, was another of the invited collectives. “It’s a massive boost for the industry,” says Arthur, “and a vindication for all those commercial artists, graphic designers and illustrators beavering away on their own personal projects.”
Another happy exhibitor was Kate Newbold-Higginson, director of Print Club London who installed a screenprinting studio in a particularly warm corner of one of the galleries. One of the joys of the event, she says – apart from getting to meet “every art director working in the UK” – was watching graphic designers relax into screenprinting.
“We have a pretty DIY approach at Print Club and really embrace the imperfections that screenprinting can produce,” she explained. “A few of the graphic designers struggled with this at first, but it was wonderful by the end of the day to see them covered in ink and signing all the editions, even those that weren’t perfect.”
She concedes that some of the complaints on blogs (see CR online) that PMU illustrators were part of a crowd who already get lots of exposure are justified, but stresses that the fair’s real importance has been in attracting new people to the scene.
“PMU opened up this east London creative sector to a new demographic of buyers,” she adds. “We met lots of people who had no idea what silk-screen print was, or where Dalston was for that matter. So I think the most exciting thing to emerge [from PMU] will be a new group of followers.”
At the time of writing Somerset House was keeping coy about the total amount of money the print sales brought in – as well as which artist was best-selling. The ladies at the cash-desks totting up the sales for the final day were a little more forthcoming. Apparently James Joyce and Mr Bingo were amongst the hottest property, but precise numbers of sales are not yet in the public domain. Though a spokesman said that following the fair’s success “Somerset House hopes to make it an annual event.”
Catterall had said at the packed-out opening evening that “Illustration is so accessible, but at the moment the majority of people only see a fraction of what’s out there”. Her new show has gone some way to address that and there’s ambition for more. “Eventually it’d be great to take over London, to work with lots of galleries and make it like a giant graphic arts and illustration festival,” she says.
There’s plenty of potential for growth within Somerset House too. It’s easy to imagine the quadrangle beloved of Christmas ice skaters becoming an amazing venue for more ambitious large scale graphic installations.
In six years the London Festival for Architecture has gone from a small Clerkenwell base to a city-wide event. Though there may not be the friendly developers to bankroll projects within the graphic arts scene that architecture can attract, London – with its status as one of the most important global cities for the graphic arts and its abundance of talent – is a natural host.
Crucially, what Pick Me Up has shown is that there is a demand to meet that talent. Looking forward, these 11 days in April may have been instrumental in ensuring that an ambitious contemporary graphic art fair will become a fixture in the UK’s cultural diary.
James Pallister is the publisher of MEAT magazine. Pick Me Up ran from April 23 until May 3 at Somerset House in London. Information on buying screenprints made at the fair is at printclublondon.com