The Narrows, Melbourne, 30 September – 14 November 2010
Curated by Dominic Hofstede
Les Mason, an American graphic designer who moved to Melbourne in the early 1960s, spent thirteen years designing, photographing and illustrating Epicurean magazine, Australia’s first magazine devoted to food and wine. In September 2010, contemporary art and design gallery The Narrows exhibited a survey of all seventy-seven covers, the last exhibition in its Flinders Lane location. Exhibited in purpose-built display cabinets, Masons’ covers were presented in chronological order from 1966 to 1979. This retrospective approach highlighted Mason’s employment, over several years, of the signature styles of a variety of twentieth century art movements, to create complex and innovative cover art.
In 1974, an exhibition of Mason’s paintings from Epicurean was held at Realities Gallery in Melbourne. According to Dominic Hofstede, the curator of the exhibition at The Narrows, ‘by placing the ephemeral and marginalised world of magazine graphics within the context of the art gallery Mason had blurred the lines between art and design’.1 Hofstede continued this practice by exhibiting a small selection of Mason’s 1974 artworks alongside the covers at The Narrows. Each of these artworks had been published, either on the cover of the magazine, or as a spread.
The exhibition highlighted Mason’s most notable reference to the art movements of dada and surrealism. Mason utilised these movements’ irrational visual juxtapositions for maximum visual impact. In Epicurean 51, October–November 1974, he evoked Salvador Dali’s dream state imagery with a bottle cut in half leaving the top section balanced precariously. A multi-coloured egg replaced the brain on a drawing of a face similar in style to the animation used in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine of the late 1960s. In Epicurean 71, February–March 1978, Mason continued to incorporate the style of Surrealism. Here, the bottom sections of a bottle are strategically cut away and balanced against sections of a pear and an egg. These were the days long before Photoshop, leaving one to wonder how a bottle such as this could balance. The success of Mason’s Epicurean covers lies in his ability to employ the visual styles of dada and surrealism to challenge the general public’s perception of how a magazine cover should look, while still promoting the ideals and products of the magazine.
In later covers, Mason moves through a variety of other art movements, such as arte povera, spatial art, colour field painting, geometric abstraction, abstraction, pop art and op art, to name a few. Such referencing kept Epicurean fresh and unhindered by a particular corporate style guide that is often applied to well-known publications such as the fashion tome Vogue. As demonstrated in the layout of the exhibition, the overall effect suggests that no two covers are alike. Utilising various font styles for the masthead, Mason was able to inject a sense of playfulness that created an element of intrigue as to the magazine’s content.
The visual effectiveness of the covers indicates that Mason was willing to take risks offered to him by the magazine owner and publisher, Alan Holsworth. In order to produce a magazine that reflected Australia’s developing food and wine industry Holsworth afforded Mason complete creative freedom. With little or no budget, Mason was able to incorporate his many interests in a variety of art and design styles to produce a body of work rarely seen in Australian publishing. A similar comparison can be made to the creative freedom that photographer and creative director Oliviero Toscani enjoyed while at the helm of global clothing brand, Benetton, in the late 1980s and 1990s that resulted in thought-provoking and sometimes controversial advertising campaigns.
The exhibition was a rare opportunity to view a comprehensive body of work from an eminent designer. Mason’s covers are landmarks in the development of graphic design both nationally and internationally. Through Epicurean, Mason indulged his passion for graphic experimentation and a comprehensive knowledge of twentieth century art styles to formulate what may be considered a defining moment in the evolution of design in this country.
Glenn Walls is an artist, writer and curator based in Melbourne.