Crack meets an artist making some of the most iconic imagery in recent years.
Anthony Burrill describes himself as “a graphic artist situated somewhere in between a fine artist and a commercial artist.” This is a pretty spot on introductory one-liner but it doesn’t really do him justice.
Within the mire of artists navigating between the fine and the commercial, Anthony Burrill has carved out a trademark style that has seen him gain wide recognition across the artistic spectrum. As an example, the gallery hosting his upcoming exhibition describes him as the “Godfather of the graphic art scene.”
Arguably the most fascinating thing about Burrill’s work to date is the winding back catalogue of projects that have contributed to where he finds himself today. Through completing website designs for Kraftwerk, a few advertising campaigns for the infamous Hans Brinker budget hotel in Amsterdam, some more work for clients like The London Underground and The British Library and a string of acclaimed exhibitions and artist residencies across the globe – you have very accomplished artist. These multi-faceted and varying projects have contributed toward Burrill finding his character style and developing his signature groove.
The persuasive nature of Burrill’s imagery is gold dust within the bulging, saturated world of repetitive typography. There is a real universal feel to Burrill’s work. In and amongst the information stacks, the wobbling billboards, the advertisments, and overflowing lists of laws and rules and do’s and don’t’s in the graphical typography world, Burrill’s work provides a breath of fresh air.
The punchiness of Burrill’s woodblock posters may appear simple enough, but this is where the real challenge inherent in his work lies. How much easier is it to doodle for hours and hours creating endless patterns that wobble and morph and transform as they go along than it is to create something concise with three or four lines, structured and meaningful and clean around the edges?
Anthony Burrill’s posters communicate both vocally and visually. Steeped in simplicity, yet traditionally and complexly produced, Burrill’s use of words make them both explosively warming and completely beautiful.
When looking at his posters you are reminded of road signs, public information films, tube maps, war posters, protests, motivational speeches, street art and shop front eye-candy. They remind of both the visuals that we take for granted in our everyday life and typography that makes us stop and pay attention.
It’s often harder to say something meaningful with only a few words than it is in an entire book, page or over a verse-chorus-verse-chorus. It can be argued there isn’t anything more affirming than a simple message that rouses an audience or triggers an emotion through the expert use of just a handful of words – something that takes a second to read but resonates for hours.
If you had to describe your work in three words?
Optimistic. Engaging. Thoughtful.
How considered are the words, statements and sentences you choose to work with? Do you consider each one long and hard? Or do you go with instinct?
The words I use are very important to me. I spend a long time thinking of the right thing to say. I try to talk about positivity and offer an optimistic approach to work and life and I use phrases that ‘feel right’ – I guess I work instinctively. As an example, I sometimes I use a phrase that has an ambiguous meaning that could be applied to lots of different things. I think the trick is to use words that aren’t too specific, that the audience can project their own thoughts and ideas on to.
Tell us more about your woodblock work? What is it about this technique that sees you continue to use it when modern techniques offer more efficient and cost effective alternatives?
I love the whole process of making a woodblock print – it really is a special technique. I work with a local printer called Adams Of Rye to make the prints. This way it feels more like more of collaboration as I have an idea for the text I feel might work and then we set the type and see how it works. Because the lettering is made of wood, you can’t re-size it or edit it in any way, so you have to be resourceful in the way you use it. I like to use short words and fill as much of the poster as I can with text. It definitely gives a warm nostalgic feeling to the posters. I try to keep them looking fresh and modern by using brightly coloured paper, as the last thing I want the posters to be is a pastiche of anything. I feel the woodblock gives the words a weight and importance, something that is harder to achieve using a computer.
There is something very lyrical about the phrases you work with on your woodblock posters. Do you ever develop a poetic or musical link to the phrases? Or are these posters strictly visual?
I’m obsessed by music, I listen to music all day while I work. It helps take me to the ‘other place’ where I can think freely. I like lyrical, mellow, groovy music and lots of electronic and abstract stuff. As long as it has a groove, I’m happy.
Have you ever considered the links between your work and song writing or storytelling?
My work has a strong narrative feeling to it, all the work comes from the same place and is trying to communicate the same kind of message. In another world I could’ve been a songwriter or musician. Unfortunately I can’t sing tunefully and I can’t play any musical instruments! I’ve been part of musical projects, but in a more button pressing role, rather than stringing together a song.
What drives your use of language?
An urge to communicate with people I don’t know and will never meet. It is a strange thing communicating with an audience who have no idea who you are or what you are about. The work has to function really well to reach people in a meaningful way. This is something I’ve spent the past 20 years trying to achieve.
How much do you think about the visual links between words and language? And how do you gauge whether a word or groups of words will work visually?
It is hard to tell. Sometimes I make things that I feel make sense, but fail to connect with people. I think the main rule is to keep things simple and try not to be too clever. Luckily I find this quite easy!
Linked to your recent exploits with gallery shows, collaborations, exhibitions – please explain what you seek to achieve when you showcase your work to the public?
To try and connect with people, hopefully amuse and engage. I spend a lot of time working on exhibitions and it is always a mixture of worrying that you will be able to put together a good show that people will come and see and like. It’s a hard process filled with self doubt and anxiety. I don’t really know why I do it! I suppose when the show is finally hung and looks good, that’s when it feels good.
Do your designs work better in groups or as stand alone pieces?
Some pieces work well alone, projects like the Oil & Water poster have a very simple story that people get immediately, whereas other pieces take a little longer to sink in but are equally as rewarding. It is important for individual pieces to stand out, but they will inevitably all form part of my on-going body of work and will always been seen and informed by that context.
How do you feel your two-dimensional work translates to 3D?
It is essentially the same thing, whether the work is printed, laser cut, painted or hammered together, it is all aiming to say the same thing. I try to make the work as honest and truthful as possible.
Where are you heading? What are your future plans or projects?
Collaborations with The School of Life which is a workshop in Barcelona in July, an exhibition in Istanbul in September and a possible collaboration with architects, FAT, are all on the horizon.
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Words: Thomas Hawkins