Designer Todd Oldham was rooting around in a thrift store when he came upon a set of dusty old songbird prints. Each bird was playfully, colorfully honed down to its fundamental birdness. The artist, Charley Harper, turned out to be the same guy who drew one of Oldham’s favorite childhood classroom texts, The Giant Golden Book of Biology. For Oldham, the biology lessons themselves didn’t stick, but the illustrations did, and he has since put together the definitive collection of Harper’s work. Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life is a gorgeous, drool-worthy coffee-table tome from AMMO Books. And Harper was nothing if not prolific. (The book is so huge and heavy, it could actually be the coffee table.) Painting from the natural world in a manner he called “minimal realism,” Harper captured the essence of a thing — a bug, a bird, a crawdad, a hippo, an owl eating a mouse, a cell undergoing meiosis — using the fewest elements possible. “I don’t count the feathers,” he says in the introduction, “I just count the wings.” An Illustrated Life opens with a majestic painting of a tiger wrestling a boa constrictor, and proceeds chronologically through Harper’s oeuvre, from his artwork for Betty Crocker to his silk-screens for Ford Motor Co.’s lifestyle magazine Ford Times to the hard, flat, acrylic-on-canvas paintings he did purely for himself. The intellectual rigor of Harper’s work, coupled with his exuberant sense of humor, puts today’s Photoshop-happy graphic designers to shame. They — and anyone else who appreciates beauty distilled — would do well to visit Book Soup this week, where Oldham will present the five different editions of An Illustrated Life (they range from $200 for the standard release to $400 for slipcased limited editions) and talk about his hero.
Todd Oldham discusses Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Sat., July 21, 5-7 p.m. (310) 659-3110.