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Artist and designer Jay Vigon exhibits at the University Art Gallery

In the world of painter, photographer, and graphic designer Jay Vigon, the commercial and the artistic are never completely severed. On the commercial side of things, Vigon is known for his bold, graphic logos; fashion advertising work; music packaging; and TV commercials. (Clients include George Lucas, Gotcha Sportswear, American Express, and Warner Bros.) And yet Vigon, in his personal art, seems to critique the very industry in which he himself is a pioneer.

click to enlarge AND NOW A WORD:  “Swimming Upstream,” the art of Jay Vigon, is on view at the Cal Poly University Art Gallery—located in the Dexter Building (34), room 171, on the university campus—through Feb. 16. Admission is free; hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • AND NOW A WORD: “Swimming Upstream,” the art of Jay Vigon, is on view at the Cal Poly University Art Gallery—located in the Dexter Building (34), room 171, on the university campus—through Feb. 16. Admission is free; hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

In an exhibit titled “Swimming Upstream,” currently hanging at the Cal Poly University Art Gallery, Vigon deliberately places both sides of his creative work on display, with the goal of showing just how interconnected the artistic and commercial worlds really are. Placards next to each section of the exhibit seem to underscore this, delineating a series or piece’s title, medium, and its “application,” which often simply reads “personal art.”

Nowhere in “Swimming Upstream” is Vigon’s work better dichotomized than in the large-scale piece Remote Control, which the artist created by photographing his television as he changed the channels, presenting a mashup of the resulting images in banner-like rows. Superimposed across these pieces, large yet barely legible, are phrases torn from the parlance of television. And now a word, reads one. Elsewhere: We are going live. Another implores, Stay tuned.

Vigon was interested by the ways in which consumers are “remotely controlled” by advertising, fashion, and celebrity, he explains, and by the television’s unyielding command that the viewer not look away. Directly across from Remote Control—bathing the piece, in fact, in a flickering glow—is a looped video showcasing Vigon’s television ad work.

The concentration of work in “Swimming Upstream” is a little overwhelming, yet serves as a comprehensive look at the artist and designer’s career. A series of posters created for the Tokyo radio station J-Wave are fabulously bright, bold, and graphic, but rendered with astonishing intricacy and care, like an Oriental rug imagined by an 8-bit video game designer. Sort of. Another standout is Vigon’s series of “clown skulls”—eerie, leering, color-soaked faces created, like his series of alien flowers and imagined tropical fish, entirely in Photoshop.

click to enlarge Arts-2ndary-gallery2-Jay_Vigon-1-310.jpg

While impressive, a wall covered in logos, printed on paper and stapled into place, seems intentionally busy and overwhelming, as if intended both to showcase Vigon’s massive and diverse body of work and to demonstrate the urban landscape’s absolute saturation with graphics—and, by proxy, the people who create them.

This is, the artist notes, a recent phenomenon, as anyone with a computer can install a program and proclaim him or herself a graphic designer. The result? Designers who merely appropriate existing images. Designers who don’t know how to draw. Designers who aren’t very good.

Vigon, however, still insists on sketching his designs freehand before rendering them digitally.

“Not drawing limits your problem-solving capabilities,” he explained, though with none of the expected back-in-my-day harumphiness. Today’s designers, working digitally, tend to approach a project with one idea, he went on. Drawing enables the designer to explore many ideas, without being limited by one’s knowledge of a particular program.

A wall of Vigon’s sketches, currently hanging in “Swimming Upstream,” seems to confirm this. Elsewhere in the show, we identify these drafts’ final versions.

When Vigon, as a young man, enrolled in the Art Center College of Design to pursue advertising, there was no graphic design major, he explained in a phone interview. When the art director of A&M Records spoke to his class, he says, it was the first time Vigon realized there was such a position: “When I found out that there was a job like that, where you designed record packages all day, that was it for me.”

He was hired at A&M in the early ’70s, and the first decade of his career was devoted to music packaging. When the music industry started flagging, however, he moved on to other kinds of creative work, taking jobs at Warner Bros., Gotcha, and Cole Surfboards. In the ’90s, Vigon was one of the first to incorporate typography into a television commercial—a style that’s practically ubiquitous today.

“Swimming Upstream” tracks Vigon’s evolution as a designer ever since, as well as the parallel world of his personal art.

A single piece from his “Masked Men” series—paintings of faces created through the layering up and scraping away of paint—is represented twice: in its original form and as an enlarged photograph, which shows the nuance and texture of the piece. The choice may recall the way in which ads for everything from cosmetics to hamburgers to breakfast cereal tend to zoom in on their product to show its every juicy, age-defying, fat-free, flame-grilled, rejuvenating, heart-healthy facet. But the artist says the choice was more coincidental. Drawn in by a blown-up photograph of a “Masked Men” painting, created to advertise (that word again!) one of his art shows, Vigon decided he liked the photographic representations of the pieces, with their beautiful details and stark white backgrounds, better than the originals—and I have to agree with him. 

Arts Editor Anna Weltner is guaranteed to get results. Contact her at


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