The French expression le dernier cri translates idiomatically as “the latest fashion,” but literally as “the last cry,” as of a dying culture. The French DIY publishing collective that goes by that name has, over the past 10 years, managed to tread a fine line between the two — issuing a torrent of urgent, violently apocalyptic picture books that showcase the most exciting international graphic artists around in a medium rooted in the independent production and distribution strategies of the ’90s zine underground.
When I first encountered its lavish, hand-screen-printed collections of comix-based images, I assumed that Le Dernier Cri was some kind of deep-pocketed vanity project instigated by a wealthy collector/patron in Europe, where comic art has always received a certain respect and support, both institutional and popular. How else could an independent publishing concern manage to produce what amounts to bound limited-edition albums of original prints — averaging more than a dozen uniquely designed titles per year — and sell them for peanuts? I recently learned the answer, from LDC co-founder Caroline Sury: Do all the work yourself, and never give up in the face of indifference, whether from the high art world, or the low.
Sury was in Los Angeles to collaborate with contributing artist and “West Coast Ministress of Propaganda” Georganne Deen on the first U.S. exhibition of Dernier Cri artifacts at Track 16 Gallery in Bergamot Station. LDC began when Sury, who had been producing a post-punk industrial zine called Hello Happy Taxpayer, met multimedia whirlwind Pakito Bolino and relocated with him from Bordeaux to Paris and then to Marseilles to set up a studio and explore and combine their interests in the laborious, relatively high end medium of serigraphy and the further reaches of comix art. At first LDC primarily showcased the couple’s own work, but soon found itself serving a rapidly expanding global community of underground artists.
LDC’s only obvious precedent is RAW magazine, a beautifully offset-printed comix anthology edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly in the 1980s. Some of the most interesting artists who came up through RAW — like Gary Panter of Jimbo/Pee-wee’s Playhouse fame and Mark Beyer of Amy & Jordan (both of whom have published in the L.A. Weekly) wound up working with LDC as well. But after the first few issues, RAW began to take on more and more of the kind of upscale East Coast toniness that led to a Pulitzer Prize (for Spiegelman) and a gig at The New Yorker (for Mouly). Which is cool. But you’re never going to see the work of expatriate Minnesotan and LDC regular Stu Mead on the cover of that venerable publication.
Of course, the way things are going, you probably won’t be seeing Mead’s work being published anywhere in these United States. Mead’s art — like that of many LDC favorites — tends to the transgressive, specifically a penchant for surreal, voyeuristic scenes of salacious middle-aged men and exuberantly perverse schoolgirls, a recipe for unwanted official attention in America. Mead caught heat for his zine Manbag and has since moved to Berlin. Mike Diana, the only American ever forbidden by law to make art, has done several books for LDC. Fredox, Jonathan Rosen, Laetitia, and Henriette Valium (whose own Montreal-based silk-screened comix led to an early LDC alliance) have contributed to the photo-collage house style revolving around medical atrocities and sexual torture.
From the LDC catalog: work by Moulinex
The violence, sexuality and angst of much of this work may be provocative, but the Grand Guignol tradition has played an important role in both post-punk industrial culture (even from before Nine Inch Nails) and comic books from the EC horror era to the phantasmagorical debaucheries of Zap. (And Marseilles is, after all, the hometown of archetypal expressionist madman Antonin Artaud.) Compared to the remarkable formal accomplishment, the shock value seems beside the point.
Perhaps the most accomplished unknown championed by the LDC is Moulinex, a French artist whose inexhaustible visual vocabulary and seemingly effortless painting and design skills overflow in his four-part series, Art-pute Carnet. The fact that someone so obviously gifted in traditional visual art has come to any public attention only through the sponsorship of a renegade group like LDC is testimony to the cultural xenophobia that characterizes The Art World. Although LDC has recently started issuing actual wall-hanging framable prints, its inroads into The Art World still consist pretty much of . . . a show at Track 16. And Moulinex isn’t alone — flipping through any issue of LDC’s ongoing anthology zine Hôpital Brut (which has to date printed work by artists from 100 different countries), you are continually startled by the daring, the beautiful and the completely unexpected.
While individual artists have their relative strengths, much of the integrity of the LDC catalog lies in its visual consistency: Most of the photographic work leans toward the purplish bleached-by-the-sun-in-the-drugstore-window end of the spectrum, while the work that exploits silk-screen’s unparalleled affinity for layering usually employs garish fluorescent orange and pink or metallic inks. This consistency of palette is a result of the DIY nature of LDC — most of the color choices are made during the printing process by Bolino, Sury and whoever else happens to be working the screens. In many ways, Le Dernier Cri can be seen as one large collective artwork — collaborative in nature but funneled through the distinctive aesthetics of Bolino and Sury.
Nowhere is this element of Gesamtkunstwerk — “total artwork” — more apparent than in the feverish compilations of animated sequences produced since 1997 by LDC’s cinematic arm, Le Plateau Symetrique, and screened in Track 16’s tiny back gallery. With dense, careening experimental soundtracks assembled by Bolino and friends, these relentlessly paced mishmashes of costumed live action, puppetry and every imaginable form of animation this side of Pixar are nevertheless utterly cohesive. This is partly due to each having a rough narrative structure — Le Dernier Cri (1997) walks us through the publishing process (if by “walk” you mean to stagger through a waterlogged carnival freak show with a headful of acid), while Hôpital Brut (1999) offers almost an hour’s worth of vignettes set inside a nightmarish psychiatric facility. This fall (in addition to at least three new books and a revamped Web site at www.lederniercri.org), a new film anthology on the theme of “savage religions” will tour Europe, if not L.A. C’est dommage!
It’s not as if The Art World is so hot at identifying its own raw talent either. Many of the best student artists I’ve seen over the last decade have dropped out from lack of response, while boring hacks with a line of shtick are promoted as geniuses. What a world. When I visited UCLA’s Warner Studios this spring, I was surprised and delighted by the intricate collages of Elliott Hundley, made from thousands of tiny photographic fragments, bits of magazines, petals from plastic flowers, twist ties and god knows what else pushpin-mounted to elaborate structures and, in the case of one entire wall, to gnarly sheets of white Styrofoam. It really stuck with me. I felt a little anxious that Hundley might slip through the cracks, but I needn’t have worried — the foam piece, which at the time was just his storage palette but in the interim has become a real artwork, entitled Deathless Aphrodite of the Spangled Mind, was the high point of “I Am Human, and I Deserve To Be Loved,” a recently closed show at the upstart Overtones Gallery on Venice Boulevard in the shadow of the 405 freeway. Alongside Hundley’s mammoth pincushion were works by two other current UCLA grad students. Amir Fallah, who publishes the high-gloss graffiti zine Beautiful/Decay, is a hip-hop synthesist of Persian extraction by way of Fairfax, Virginia, whose large-scale, brightly colored wall painting Tomorrow, Tonight, Tomorrow, Tonight, Tomorrow incorporates stickers, abstract shapes referencing Persian decorative motifs, and graffiti, layered with visual quotations from Western art history. Nathan Mabry, who took the long route from Napa by way of the Kansas City Art Institute, makes droll, idiosyncratic ceramic sculptures — including a realistic porcelain sloth and cast fast-food drinking cups wedged in a white picket fence — allegedly based on the erotic pottery of the pre-Columbian Moche civilization. One of his pieces sold, as did Hundley’s foam monster. It’s a nice surprise, and not as infrequent as you’d expect — The Art World getting something right.
See PULPit for further examples of LDC art.
LE DERNIER CRI: Legendary Publishers of the International Underground | Track 16 Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave. C1, Santa Monica | Through August 16 | (310) 264-4678
I AM HUMAN, AND I DESERVE TO BE LOVED | Overtones Gallery, 11306 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles | Through July 19 (310) 915-0346