The word grunge, coined by the writer Paul Ramball, most of us associate with the subgenre of alternative rock originating in Seattle during the 1980’s. But, what about grunge art? Does such a movement, or such a phenomenon even exist? In design, typography, or the production of various other images, can we pinpoint a style and call it that? Regarding fashion aesthetics, the idea of ripped jeans, greasy hair, and worn-out t-shirts are generally connected to an idea of grunge, but in the visual art production, what would describe such a notion? What innovations, if any, did the grunge artists bring to the world of art?
If we relate the term to its musical root, the band Nirvana would stand at its center. As the iconic band, its music is the very definition of the grunge. The nihilistic, angst-filled lyrics reflected the ideas of isolation, apathy, and the desire for freedom. The concerts of this group along with Pearl Jam, or Stone Temple Pilots, avoided the use of light projections, pyrotechnics, and other visual effects that took the attention from music. As such, the grunge music was raw. Now, how can we relate this to the world of visual art?
The poster designs which accompanied such events help form the idea of what grunge art might be. Regarding this form of graphic design production, a common feature was evident in the frequent use of lo-fi images, foggy or discolored photography, collage or distressed letters.
Understood as the famous example of the grunge-style experimental design was the Ray Gun magazine. Its art director David Carson helped shape the aesthetics of the magazine but also of the grunge era. His experimentation with typography, the shredding, ripping and remaking of letters, produced bold and provocative covers. Such covers and Carson’s design works often touched a nerve. Once, an entire article about Bryan Ferry Carson designed with Zapf Dingbats. The double page spread, with the use of this symbols-only font, was illegible and would have to be interpreted like a cryptogram. Seeing the article as boring inspired Carson to try to make it more interesting again.
The grunge artists and designers emphasized the idea of freedom and of breaking the rules by following one’s inner voice. With the new technological developments, and the popularity of the Macintosh putting aside the art of designing by hand, artists, like musicians, were able to rebel against conventions.
Concert posters, alternative music cd’s, video games and various zines, all products of this generation, appropriated the unfinished and chaotic aesthetics of the generation. Now, in relation to the painting production, some critics suggest the existence of two branches. One is typified by colored drawings in a cartoon style relating the style of paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The other branch is described as a more 'painterly' keeping with the tradition of painters such as Susan Rothenberg. More than anything else, the style of grunge paintings is characterized as reflecting a sarcastic and twisted humor. Stylistically, grunge paintings can be both abstract or figurative, but, they do lean more towards the figurative and the narrative. The depicted figures often look like cartoons or as creatures of a dream-world, showing an element of fantasy art here as well. With the atmosphere of a 'working-class', produced paintings above anything else erase any idea of an elegance of paint and often allow for the messy and unfinished look of the artwork. The melancholic and sometimes dark imagery, reflect the state of depression in which the entire generation lingered.
Today, various digitally created images exist and some are named as grunge effects. This name relates both to the watercolor images, where the colors bleed and seem to suggest the messiness of the mistakes. Also, an image with a heavy texture, reflecting the idea of dirt or grime, incorporating the spray-like effect, blurred or scratched out fonts, and various splashes of paint, would be equally titled as the grunge effect. Such images are used by various designers today to help them create artworks that reflect the atmosphere of heavy rock, or underground punk music. This idea of a grunge look, like the idea of a retro style, has witnessed an expansion today.
As a cultural phenomenon, grunge didn’t last long. The grunge generation is described as a generation which grew up on Heavy Metal, Punk, and Hardcore. The resulting aesthetics combined the various musical elements, but in its essence, reflected the anti-authority attitude of Punk. Some of the leading grunge authors, such as the designer David Carson, helped create a new style of typography and design, and it is in this field that the most important quality of grunge art resides.
Editors’ Tip: Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge
Drawn from more than 250 interviews with some of the leading figures of this cultural phenomenon, such as Nirvana, Perl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and others, this book is a moving, funny, and insightful portrayal of extraordinary music era. Everybody Loves Our Town captures the essence of the grunge era in the words of the musicians, journalists, club owners, publishers, or just hangers at clubs. Telling the whole story, the rise of the Seattle cash-poor, to the tragic deaths of its superstars, like Kurt Cobain, the book is a unique history of this cultural, music and art’s phenomenon.
All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image:Nick Fontaine - Artwork from the Grunge Art Movement Booklet. Image via behance.com