John Langdon, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: For those who might not be familiar with the term, what is an ambigram?
JL: As simply as I can state it, an ambigram is a word that can be read from more than one vantage point. I would also say that a symmetrical symbol that looks the same from various points of view is not an ambigram. Likewise, I don’t consider ambiguous pictures to be ambigrams. The word was coined by Douglas Hofstadter specifically for words designed to have dual readability. From there it can get complicated. There are rotational ambigrams, ambigrams with mirror-image symmetry, and a number of other variations.
PC: You’ve said that you made your first ambigram back in 1972, with the word “HEAVEN.” In retrospect, do you think that might have been an omen?
JL: I don’t think so. It was a spontaneous response to a momentary situation. But I immediately tried to make ambigrams with the words HELL and GOD, and when both of them worked, I did think there was something very spiritual going on. But the next two were ARNIE and THURSDAY, if I recall correctly, which don’t seem equally omenesque. Still, while not particularly heavenly, my word selection for ambigram candidates did evolve in a particularly philosophical direction. The spirit of ambigrams is, for me, a definite exercise in idealism.
PC: How did you start working with Dan Brown? [Some readers may recognize the name of the author of the DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons.]
JL: Dan’s father, Dick Brown, was a math teacher, and mathematicians seem to be drawn to the symmetries of my ambigrams. Dick bought a copy of Wordplay when it came out in ’92. Like many people, he was inspired to try his hand at creating an ambigram. Working on his own name, he had encountered some difficulties and he wrote to me for some pointers. I helped him out and we initiated a sporadic correspondence that lasted, I would guess, a few months. After some time passed, he called me, explaining that his son Dan, a singer-songwriter was about to cut his next CD, which would be called Angels & Demons. He wanted to know if I’d be willing to create an ambigram for the cover of the CD. Although Dan had little to spend, I thought it would be very cool to have one of my ambigrams on the cover of a CD, and for added incentive, “Angels & Devils” was the name of one of my favorite Escher prints.
As it turned out, Angels & Demons was the last CD in Dan’s music career. A couple of years later he was a fledgling novelist. After his first book, Digital Fortress was published, Dan called to say that he was going to name his second novel Angels & Demons and hoped it would be OK to use the ambigram again for the book cover. That was fine with me. A short while later, he called again to tell me he’d like to put some ambigrams into the plot of Angels & Demons. I invited him and his wife, Blythe, to come down to the house in the woods of northern Bucks County where my wife, Lynn, and I go every weekend, so that we could get to know each other and brainstorm some ideas.
Dan is a pretty intense researcher, and he wanted to see just about everything I’d ever done, and hear how and why I had done it. Among many other things, I showed Dan an ambigram I had done with the words EARTH, AIR, FIRE and WATER and some experiments I had been working on with each of those four elements on its own. Dan called in a few days to see if I might be able to rework those ambigrams into a consistent style that would seem more ancient, European, and creepy. Apparently the ambigrams of the four traditional elements struck a chord with Dan, as they seem to have inspired a structural armature for one of the levels of Angels & Demons.
PC: You’d done commercial work before as a graphic artist. How did that prepare you for working with Dan Brown on these projects? How did these projects differ?
JL: My ambigrams evolved in the early 70s out of a merger between my fascination with language, my philosophical and graphic investigations of the yin/yang symbol, and my early professional experiences in typography and graphic design. Logo design, towards which I quickly gravitated, inspired me in terms of cleverness and originality in the visual presentation of words. Conventional type design set standards of readability and aesthetics. So I’ve always thought of my ambigrams as a direct outgrowth of typography and logo design, as regards their execution and appearance.
Before 2005, comparatively few of my ambigrams were created on a commission basis. As commercial as their appearance is, they were, for many years, my fine artwork, coming straight from my own process of self-discovery and individuation.
PC: Why does Gothic Blackletter work so well in ambigrams?
JL: It’s an interesting situation. Many of us, I suspect, grew up seeing what we probably thought of as (the misnomer) “Olde English” lettering on the mastheads of the church bulletin and our local newspaper. Younger people’s first experiences with Blackletter may have involved the graphics used by “Death Metal” bands. So we’ve been familiar with it for most of our lives, but have really never had to familiarize ourselves with its unique characteristics. The strokes and details and decorative flourishes are quite exotic by comparison to the Roman styles that most of the things we read are based on. The numerous aspects of Blackletter that are not parts of Roman letterforms are delicious ingredients that ambigram artists can use, misuse, and abuse extensively to aid in the process of making a glyph appear as one letter from one direction and another letter from a different vantage point.
The K/h and the p/F glyphs in “Keep the Faith” are excellent examples. Even simpler letters like the t and e in “the” benefit from this combination of the reader’s familiarity and unfamiliarity with the style.
Given the challenge of creating six ambigrams for Angels & Demons, Blackletter’s compliant nature was critically important. I’m not sure the ambigrams could have been done in a consistent style with any other look. The fact that Dan wanted an ancient European look made Blackletter just that much more appropriate.
PC: You write, “Ambigrams require the viewer to see from different points of view. My selection of words is oriented towards ideas that represent the natural processes that the yin/yang symbol represents and asks that the viewer consider both points of view.”
What are some examples of that?
The short answer is, “All the ambigrams in Wordplay. The earliest among those would be the best examples of the underlying spirit: PHILOSOPHY, BALANCE, YIN/YANG. More specifically, words that relate to natural phenomena that became ambigrams include SYMMETRY, MAGNETIC, ELECTRICITY, GRAVITY, WAVELENGTH, MOMENTUM, and ENERGY. Probably the best example of that group of words with surprisingly dichotomous definitions is INERTIA, which means “a characteristic of matter whereby a stationary object remains stationary,” and “a characteristic of matter whereby an object in motion remains in motion.”
PC: You say about your book Wordplay, ““No one should read it unless they are prepared to be challenged on their assumptions about themselves, other people and the universe around us, as well as entertained and occasionally amazed in the process.”
JL: The theme of Wordplay is that we need to look at everything from more than one point of view if we are to understand it. The (relatively Western) idea that some things are, for instance, purely evil, and others purely good, and the (relatively Christian) idea that good will one day triumph over evil are ideas that prevent understanding of the world around us. Someone who considers him- or herself to be “a realist” is simply taking refuge in a single reality that ignores many other ways of regarding our surroundings. One of the ways that I approach these potentially disturbing ideas is through humor. Another is by way of some very unusual ways of looking at words.
PC: Why did you major in English? How did you get from being an English major to working in the photo-lettering department of a type house?
JL: I have known for as long as I can remember that I was an artist. But I didn’t really start thinking for myself until I was out of college. I simply followed what was expected of me, and although art/design school would have made a great deal of sense, not having been supported or encouraged in that direction, I went off to a small liberal arts college (having been rejected by the Ivy League schools my mother had in mind). I thought I would major in art, but 1. that meant two studio courses, and some great number of art history courses, and 2. with Art History 101 and 102 scheduled for 8 am Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, I fell asleep moments after they turned off the lights in preparation for showing slides. I was lucky to receive Ds in 101 and 102, but those 2 Ds precluded becoming an art major even if, at that point, I had wanted to. Next choice: English, which I liked.
A degree in English, of course, does not prevent a person from entering any profession, but neither did it give me any idea of what I wanted to do. College had yielded me a student draft deferment, a love of Shakespeare, and a fascination with word etymologies, but no career direction. With no design education and no portfolio, I didn’t get far when I made the rounds of ad agencies, but eventually a helpful art director referred me to a type house. It was a pretty lousy job, and very low pay, but it was a start, and one that I couldn’t have known how valuable it would turn out to be.
PC: There’s a strong connection between your work as a type specialist and logo designer and your other work. e.g., Logoplay. with anagram logos and cropped logos
The logo play as well as your Mixed Symmetries and Perpendicular symmetries show your interest in language, almost like concrete poetry. You write, “They are related in spirit as much as they are divided by appearance. Words are the consistent subject matter, and ambiguity, symmetry and illusion are always present, sometimes obviously, sometimes not so much.”
Would you expand on that a bit?
JL: The several threads of my painting work are quite distinct visually, and they have, of course, very different appearances from my commercial logos and my ambigrams. Yet for me, there is a seamless continuum from one extreme of my work to the other. They all seem to be the products of the influences I mentioned earlier: philosophy, language, corporate logos and typography, and surrealism, psychedelic poster lettering, etc. Although the media differ greatly, my process of generating and developing ideas is almost identical in all those different directions.
While my idea generation process is very spontaneous and playful, and open to accidental discoveries, the concepts that grow out of that process are then carefully refined and planned, refined and drawn. My Rorschach work shows some genuine spontaneity, but there is often (but not always) a plan, or hoped for result. I have never taken the time to follow up on this idea, but I believe I could arrange my paintings in such a way that each different series could be shown to have evolved organically out of previous work that might have a very different appearance.
Verbal symmetry may be expressed visually, as with the words ON and NO or it may exist spiritually by pairing ON with OFF. If the forms are not symmetrical, the colors may be. There are many levels of linguistic communication and of visual communication. I’m constantly shuffling those layers like a deck of cards.
PC: You’ve mentioned a number of artists and writers as influences on your work:
My strongest influences along the way were Salvador Dali, the cubists, M.C. Escher, Rene Magritte, the psychedelic poster artists (especially Rick Griffin), and Herb Lubalin. Writers who I have found inspirational include Edgar Allan Poe, Ogden Nash, John Barth, and Tom Robbins. The connections with Dali and Escher are evident, for example your in your Figure Ground paintings, including The Persistence of Influence.
What is there in each of these authors that’s been inspirational?
JL: John Barth and Tom Robbins both come up with the most compelling and original story lines. I read Giles Goatboy soon after I graduated from college. Its portrayal of the mutability of reality (as well as using the college campus as a microcosm for the world) supported the idea taking the world on my own terms, but realizing that it might be different for everyone. I would have to add that John Fowles’ The Magus had a similar effect. Which reminds me of Carlos Castaneda and The Teachings of Don Juan. I guess the 60s were just full of mind-altering experiences. Dali’s paintings and Escher’s prints could illustrate those novels quite well. Tom Robbins Still Life with Woodpecker and Jitterbug Perfume are still among my favorite books. Reality can be stretched and scrunched like silly putty. Poe and Nash, of course did amazing and playful things with words, and whether the point was light and frothy (Nash) or dark and brooding (Poe) the poetry was fun to read for the wordplay alone. Robbins and Barth are no slouches with wordplay either, but their stories are so much fun that it’s a bit harder to savor the wordplay.
PC: Would you talk a bit about your choice of materials? When do you use enamel on canvas, when acrylic?
JL: I never quite got the hang of acrylics. They seem to demand a spontaneity that I don’t bring to painting. When I’m really painting, I’m painting with oils. I want to be able to work and rework, blend and rework, not only in a few minutes or hours, but maybe the next day, with a fresh eye. And there’s a tactile sensuality with oils that’s very pleasurable. Many of my paintings, especially recently, have been essentially typographic in appearance, and my goal is to portray letters with the precision of typography and logo design. I worked with One-Shot sign painters’ enamels for a while but they demand a no-mistakes process that I find a bit too nerve-wracking. I’ve found that high quality indoor latex house paints are ideal for much of the work I’m doing.
PC: What was the genesis of your Rorschach series?
JL: In the beginning was the word. No wait. Wrong Testament. But actually, the first time I recall playing with randomly applied paint, folding and unfolding, was in conjunction with my first mirror-image ambigram, the STARSHIP logo. I was experimenting with bilateral images that might accompany that bilateral ambigram. After those experiments, I continued with ambigrams, but left inkblot technique behind for about twenty years. Exodus came in the mid 90s when I saw an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s enormous Rorschach paintings, just as I was beginning my painting career. This time around, I figured out ways to integrate the technique with symmetrical treatments of words.
PC: What role do you see the artist playing in society? Commentator? Agent for change?
JL: I suppose that’s pretty dependent on the artist. Or, put another way, artists play both those roles and others as well. Entertainer, educator, court jester, interpreter, synthesizer, explorer and pioneer, etc. I think I inhabit several of those roles in doing what I do…
PC: Would you tell our readers about your book, a retelling of Alice? lWhat is your work’s title?] What set you to work on it? What I’ve read of it is hilarious: so many puns, sly references to popular culture and music: e.g., “I don’t think that’s a safe arrangement for a rabbit hole at all!” Alice thought. “I think a commission should investigate this warren right away!” That would be the Warren Commission? Or, “That’s an old arrow’s myth,” objected the Hatter. Or, “The Hare replied, ‘It’s called ‘Diversa’ tea. It’s not my favorite, but it’s politically correct, you know.’
‘Ah, yes. P.C. tea,’ commented the Hatter. ‘Would you like to find out what that means to me?’”
JL: Alice [for the time being, its title] began as a design project. Following the release of The DaVinci Code movie, and after I had cut back on my teaching to prepare for a museum show of my paintings, I was looking for a project. I have always liked Lewis Carroll’s (here we go again) reality-twisting fantasy, and thought it would be fun to design words and sentences throughout the story the way I design logos and ambigrams. But after creating a few fun pieces, I found that several of the quotes I had planned on sinking my teeth into were from Disney, rather than Lewis Carroll. I thought, “Well, maybe I could just rewrite a few things to make them work the way I want them to.” A moment later I realized what a bad idea that was, and was surprised to find that my next thought was, “Well then, I guess I’ll just rewrite the whole thing.”
That seemed like a good idea until I began wondering how to approach it, and I accomplished nothing whatsoever for the first several hours I devoted to the concept. Finally, as I reread chapter one for the nth time, I came up with the hook. The first sentence I wrote was, “She chased the Rabbit down the street, through someone’s back yard, around a corner, and was just in time to see it gracefully leap into a large rabbit hole under the hedge. ‘Pretty slick!’ she thought.” Grace Slick’s iconic rock anthem, White Rabbit, had suggested (practically demanded!) the way into the project.
From there, I discovered a cascade of items for the perfect marriage of rock and roll history and Alice’s Wonderland. Carroll’s story provided the perfect matrix in which song titles, artists’ and groups’ names, and lyrics could be inserted, almost infinitely. Eventually, of course, my own semi-encyclopedic command of rock history was drained, but Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube came to the rescue. The result, I believe, is a thoroughly refreshed version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and a relentless trip through pop music from 1955 through, well, just the other day. It’s my most uninhibited and shameless exercise in wordplay.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Gallery of Images
All images Copyright John Langdon and are provided courtesy of the artist. Click on the small image to access the full sized image.
Angels and Demons CD Cover
Earth Air Fire Water Original
Earth Air Fire Water
Turn The Tide
Keep The Faith
The Persistence of Influence