This article first appeared in Filth Weekly Weird News #22 in June 1996
Published in San Francisco and distributed free to 10,000 readers.
by Chuck Sperry
If rock'n'roll poster art is a direct reflection of the music that inspires it, then it's clear that rock has never sounded better ... or more crazed. San Francisco is at the crossroads, once again, of an explosion of poster art unknown to these parts since the Sixties. Fueled by a decade of black & white xerox punk and hardcore posters, the practitioners of the poster art have lept into the world of the color poster again. In case you haven't noticed the writing on the wall (or you have, and you're a fan) it's all on display at "Temporary Insanity" at Off the Wall Gallery 1669 Haight Street, Saturday and Sunday, June 15 & 16.
The top graphic artists in rock will be hosting this event, showing hundreds of their beautiful, seductive and strange rock posters. Go and check it out, because seeing all this stuff together in one room is really overwhelming ... kind of like letting Satan lick your eyeball. Besides, it will be a great chance to trace the history of rock art from the early psychedelic posters of Victor Moscoso and Gary Grimshaw to the present day psychotic hallucinations of Frank Kozik, Psychic Sparkplug, Coop and Lindsey Kuhn.
A little history: chances are, all those scritchy-scratchy black & white xerox posters that coated your room in a thicker and thicker layer of graphic punk rock gloom throughout the 80's are in a box or yellowing on the wall. Most of the current rock poster artists either started with xerox or went through a swift romance with it. Xerox posters have their charm; they're quick to produce and no one gets so precious about them that you feel bad about taping them all over hell and back to promote a show. The style of xerox, it's spontaneity and trashiness met up solidly with the punk music it was about. Graphic punks like John Seabury, Jim Stark, John Yates and Winston Smith coated San Francisco's phonepoles and wheatpasted walls with a heavy coat of photostatic flyers. In LA Gary Panter and Raymond Pettibon did likewise.
Then in the late 80's Kozik started banging out those wild-beast rock posters with the dayglo florescent colors and nothing xeroxed looked quite burly enough to hang next to them. A whole new group of artists inspired by the colorful and highly skilled designs that Kozik was putting out of his Austin, Texas shop (or by the idea of producing stuff with the same materials) jumped into the arena and started simultaneously producing silkscreen rock posters.
Coop had been putting out a solid stream of loony and sexy record covers for LA based Long Gone John, boss of Sympathy for the Record Industry. He has branched into full color silkscreened posters in the last few years with the aid of Kozik and his automatic press (after Kozik moved his operation from Austin to San Francisco and set up shop on the ground floor of Last Gasp). Coop draws buxom broads in a style that mixes Ward and Mad with Wood and Roth and comes up with images that would look at home in both the sexploitive men's mags of the late Fifties and hotrod journals of the early Sixties ... oh yeah, and not too bad on your wall either ...
Lindsey Kuhn has Austin in a rock'n'roll hammerlock and his operation, The Swamp, has moved into full production, winging off some of the most head-crazy rock art to grace the American landscape. Kuhn has a sharp eye for pop icons and deploys them in his bold posters for ironic effect; it's like a visual rumble of rival gangs.
A cooperative based out of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury, Psychic Sparkplug came together when Orion Landau and Ron Donovan pooled their resources, refined a unique handprinting technique, and started coming out with poster imagery that melded the sensibilities of Fifties pulp novel illustration and movie design with a Ninties-styled psychotic break with reality. Chuck Sperry came on board when he and Donovan were hired by Arlene Owsiechik the same week to work for Bill Graham Presents making New Fillmore posters (they met at the underground comic book store on Haight that Sperry worked at across the street from Donovan's pad). Landau and Donovan who specialize in the photoshop and collage illustration techniques and Sperry who uses an ink and brush approach, hand pull their posters using unusual metallic inks ... the end result of this painstaking process is a layered, multi-textured poster with an extraordinarilly strong visual impact.
Gary Grimshaw came to San Francisco in 1966 and remembers the original Fillmore posters, "When I came in during the early Spring of 1966 the posters were just starting to go. In the Fillmore and Avalon series they were up to number six or seven and you'd see them in all the buses. That's where I'd always see them. And if you'd walk around anywhere, a third of the storefronts had a poster in them. You went to the hip record stores and they'd have a stack of them on the counter and you'd just take what you wanted, right off the press." Gary worked for The San Francisco Oracle for several months in '66 and then went back to Detroit and did his classic Grande Ballroom posters that made use of his finely tuned, balanced lettering style and bold use of psychological color.
Grimshaw keeps to the roots of rock, likes the raw, garage band sound. So having done numerous posters for such garage monsters as Iggy and MC5, it isn't unusual for Grimshaw's imagery to be gracing posters for such bands as Offspring and Bad Religion ... He's an artist who is true to his passion, "Commercial art is a good medium for what's going on, and it's more democratic than fine art because it isn't exclusive."
A little more history: "Not until 1966 did both the Family Dog and Bill Graham realize they were producing works of art. Initially, the posters were thought of as groovy and effective promotions," according toThe Art of Rock by Paul Grushkin.
As Chet Helms remarked, "The modern poster originated in belle epoque France. Contemporary accounts describe how avid collectors unceremoniously stripped opera and cafe posters from the walls, even before the glue could dry. I believe we experienced a parallel evolution some eighty years later in San Francisco ...
"Posters and handbills are a particularly democratic form of advertising and social expression. Posted in public places, they are available to virtually everyone at little or no cost. The parallels between the belle epoque poster and the psychedelic poster are obvious, but the 1960's posters were also rooted in the American free speach tradition of political and social pamphleteering ...
"The posters were vehicals for both, incorporating new graphic techniques and juxtaposing colors that traditionally were never printed side by side. The pioneering work of humanistic psychologists exploring pschological and physiological perception was appropriated and applied directly to the poster. Maslow and Perls taught us about gestalt and the principles of figure ground reversal. Suggesting line or form by printing two opposite colors side by side was borrowed from the Impressionists and the more methodical color studies of Josef Albers. Figure-ground reversal lent itself to double entendre. The eye is not equipped to perceive red and blue simultaneously, so vibrant red-green, red-blue combinations served to simulate the shimmering world of the psychedelic experience. The values of this emerging culture were conveyed through verbal and visual double entendre, sexual innuendo, drug innuendo, and sometimes by merely placing two images near each other on the page and allowing the viewer to draw his own conclusions. In this way the unspoken was spoken, forbidden topics were discussed, supressed feelings held in common were acknowledged."
Victor Moscoso encountered the work of Alton Kelly, Wes Wilson and Stanley Mouse in1966. "I had learned all the wrong lessons, 'lettering was supposed to be legible ... a poster should transmit its message quickly and simply,' that was the wrong track for doing these kind of posters. I didn't develop my use of color until I saw Wes' poster for the Association where he used red and green to make it vibrate and then made it look like flames so you'd have this flickering lettering. Lettering could be flames, lettering could be flowers ... Once I started getting the hang of doing Family Dog posters, I created my own poster company called Neon Rose."
"To make maximum vibration you have to get colors from the opposite ends of the color wheel and get them as bright as you can. I never used dayglo, just standard printers inks. I got it down. When you walked out of the Avalon Ballroom after a show, you couldn't hear for a week, but that was cool. To capture that feeling I just turned up the color. Every edge was a vibrating edge."
Victor Moscoso's work has reached it's way, quite justifiably, into the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But ever humbly, he chalks this up to being lucky. However, if his poster work wasn't able to send you on a mental field trip just by looking at it, then all the luck in the world wouldn't have put Moscoso's work where it belongs.
Temporary Insanity was Saturday & Sunday, June 15 & 16, 1996 at Off the Wall Gallery 1669 Haight St, San Francisco
Artists included in this show:
Frank Kozik ï Victor Moscoso ï Gary Grimshaw ï Lindsey Kuhn ï Psychic Sparkplug (Chuck Sperry, Orion Landau & Ron Donovan) ï Coop ï Mark Arminski ï John Seabury ï Kent Myers ï Mats Stromberg ï Dennis Loren ï Emek ï Joven Kerekes ï Drew Flores ï Weissman
Grushkin, Paul. The Art of Rock. New York, 1987.
Thatcher, Kevin. "Moscoso." San Francisco:
Juxtapoz, Summer, 1993/Vol. 1, Issue 3.
Toke. "The Rock Art of Gary Grimshaw." San Francisco/Detroit:
Motorbooty, Winter, 1990/Issue 5.
©1996 Chuck Sperry (Reprinted by Courtesy of the Author)