By Sarah Hayes, A&E Editor
Of all the exhibitions that have been displayed in Gallery 210 at the University of Missouri—St. Louis (UMSL) this semester, one in particular is both the most esoteric and the most practical. The exhibition, “Cast And Recast: St. Louis Type Design Present And Past,” portrays type casting as an art in and of itself. Type casting, the method of creating moveable type for printing letters by creating metal molds for individual letters via a casting machine, is one of those things that most people do not notice unless it is done really well. Typography itself, and the beautification of type on a page, has always been a favorite for fans of visual media, but the methods and the history behind type has rarely been so highlighted openly as it is now.
“Cast And Recast: St. Louis Type Design Present And Past” pulls the art of type casting out of the past, destroying any notion that the craft of creating typefaces is dead. The gallery displays typography as it is made now, via machine and PC, with new artists keeping it alive.
The show is a combination of the work and labor of local talent such as Robert Magill, owner of Monumental Type Foundry, Jennifer McKnight, associate professor in art and art history at UMSL, Ben Kiel, owner of typeface studio Typefounding, and Eric Woods, owner of letterpress printer Firecracker Press. There are also items on loan from the collections of the Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Public Library, Firecracker Press, and printmaking studio Central Print. Along with the extensive timeline on the wall detailing the history of St. Louis type founding, what is embodied in Gallery B is a feeling that the classic art of typography and how we create letters never truly went away—it just adapted to a new way of living.
This becomes clear when patrons watch the over one hour-long walkthrough of Magill’s foundry in Union, Missouri, as he is interviewed on camera by McKnight. The Monumental Type Foundry has been around since 1995 and still serves clients but Magill’s machinery is from the early 1900s and his techniques are as classic as the massive presses and caster machines he uses on a daily basis. He is not alone; aside from the two main business foundries, there are half a dozen smaller foundries in the United States, like Monumental Type, who do regular work. Other foundries are run by hobbyists who do the work for themselves, not for clients. It is a niche field, but it is a passion for Magill, who says that he is “just interested in the way things work,” which propelled him into the type field.
Watching Magill take viewers through his workshop and the various machines and techniques he uses is enthralling enough, but the proof is in the print, on display alongside some of the actual metal type and typesetting tools. Handset lead type hangs on the walls, displaying type from as far back as 1885. Magill’s type is clean and striking on the page, but one can tell it has been created through an old-fashioned press, not through a computer printer. There is an impressive visual quality about them that digital print just cannot capture.
Which is not to say that the digital examples of type casting on display are any less striking to look at. The posters that combine type aesthetic with modern techniques elevate the words to a form of art. Some of them use type to make a political statement, such as Anna Karpinski’s “#yesallwomen.” Others are a delightful commentary on type itself, like Darren Collier’s “Feel The Kern.” Patrons are shown the process behind creating modern-day fonts on computers, such as Ben Kiel’s Geometric Italic, made specifically for the gallery show. It is a process of precision and takes time, but the end result is a type that feels modern but could invoke a more classic look, specifically the Central Type Foundry’s 1881 face, Geometric.
The show is careful to exhibit the past and present of type design, showcasing the works of modern artists alongside the printed material and type of foundries and presses past. While the physical craft of processing typefaces may be disappearing in the face of newer technology, the passion for making words into a visual art continues to grow. Campus art students may find a new outlet for their creativity in the creation and arrangement of something so seemingly straightforward but amazingly complex as letters.
“Cast and Recast” is scheduled to run until May 14. There will be a reception on June 25 to show the entire catalogue available. For more information on upcoming shows, visit Gallery 210 online at www.umsl.edu/~gallery or call the gallery at 314-516-5976.