Saturday, August 27, 2005

Rock of Rages

This review appeared in Altercation #16, Summer 2005:
ART OF MODERN ROCK: The Poster Explosion, Paul Grushkin, Dennis King, and Wayne Coyne (introduction), Chronicle Books, Fall 2004, 11 x 13, 492 pages, $75.

FUCKED UP AND PHOTOCOPIED: Instant Art of the Punk Rock Movement, Brian Ray Turcotte and Christopher T. Miller, 1999, Gingko Press Inc., Corte Madera, CA. 240 pp. $40.

In the 1980s long-playing records were challenged by cassettes, which in the next decade gave way to CDs. The catastrophe that accompanied the convenience of digitization and miniaturization was not immediately evident: where riffling through LPs in the record bins had been the rock devotee’s equivalent of attending a gallery opening, clacking through plastic-encased, shrink-wrapped CDs was little different from making selections in the frozen-food aisle. Packaging had always been the area in which art and music had come together, going all the way back to the beautifully illustrated sheet music of the nineteenth century. Only in recent years, the new age of the download, have we begun to sense the harm of the disconnect between music and the visual medium.

As the LP went the way of the dodo (yes, there’s a cliquish rebound in vinyl, just as there are Betamax diehards; no matter), artists rushed to the only arena left to them: the poster or flyer for a band’s performance, whether a one-night stand in Kankakee or a world tour. The result has been that over the past fifteen years we have seen a proliferation of rock posters, with more artists working and more art seen than in the heyday of 33 rpm. The Flatstock exhibits in Austin and Seattle heralded the back-from-the-brink phenomenon, and now confirming it is the publication of the massive Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion.

There’s no denying that this successor to Paul Grushkin’s The Art of Rock (1987) is a monumental book. In that book the psychedelic artists—Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, etc.—had been the stars and their key influences were the Viennese Secessionist and Art Nouveau movements. In the current volume the stars—Frank Kozik, Emek, Jeff Kleinsmith, etc.—are less certain of lasting spots in the pantheon and their influences are more diffuse, including dadaists like John Heartfield and constructivists such as El Lissitzky as well as modern comics, or comix.

With its creative cast of hundreds and 1,800 posters, Art of Modern Rock presents posters as Sam’s Club does peanut butter: more than you can digest in a lifetime, yet when viewed on a per-serving basis, quite the bargain. It is massive, it is comprehensive, it may even be said to be definitive (though where are the punk flyers, those telephone-pole posters that may be this generation’s enduring contribution to art?). Beautifully printed in Hong Kong, it is a sturdy behemoth worthy of its publisher’s high reputation for quality work.

If you care about rock art and artists, must you own this book? Yes. But it must be said that Art of Modern Rock is more product catalog than classical art tome. (It is illuminating that Grushkin’s prior credit is the amusingly titled Treasures of the Hard Rock Café, and King’s day job is as a poster dealer.) The layout is atrocious, with no respect for the utility of negative space and no concern for the reader’s ability to see a single poster apart from its neighbors. In its relentless shoehorning the book provides one overwhelming response: visual indigestion.

The reader may anticipate trouble from the get-go as the front and back jackets offer up a clichéd turn on “devil or angel” by Scrojo, one of the most prolific and least interesting of the artists at work today. Comix are surely one of the great influences on rock art of the current period, perhaps the greatest one, but the best artists in Art of Modern Rock move beyond that influence to create something that is not mere parody. The funny papers have been blowing up the visual world since their beginning, from the distortions of Hogan’s Alley and the Yellow Kid to the lunar landscapes of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Modern artists like Roy Lichtenstein worked in a comic idiom to emphasize their emotional distance from mainstream culture, just as rock artists do today. From EC Comics and Harvey Kurtzman to Daniel Cowles and Chris Ware, from Robert Crumb and Bill Griffith to Hello Kitty and Manga, the subversive graphics of modern comix are everywhere apparent in this book.

The same is true for devil hoohah, skull fetishes, bloody organs, slasher imagery, and sinister tattoo motifs that make every turn of the page a Dia de Los Muertes. Oh, and there’s plenty of salacious imagery to go with those merry skeletons, too. This is generally sly fun, such as takeoffs on stripper posters and men’s-mag vixens. Together with classified-ad dingbats from the 1940s and sci-fi weirdnesses from the 1950s, these found images coalesce for the rock-poster artist into a network of imagery and allusion. Is this a tacky touchstone for the current crop of artists and fans? Sure. But each generation has its own signals to shared experiences, and if Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress is a more powerful trigger to memory than Kosovo, that’s just the way it is. Shakespeare and Milton peppered their work with classical and biblical references because they could rely upon their audiences getting it; the impulse of current artists is no different

Today’s counterculture rose up in some measure because the hippies sucked all the air out of the space in the 1960s with their rebellion against the war in Vietnam, racism, and the ravages of the military-industrial complex. This left young people of the 1970s with little more to get upset about than the dumbness of material culture and disco. And get upset they did, stripping down a bloated, string-accompanied version of rock to the rhythmic core that had been present at its creation. Unsurprisingly, the DIY art that accompanied performances of this DIY music was pretty rough stuff, striving for edge and attitude rather than craftsmanship.

To view a collection of punk flyers deep-sixed by the commercial instincts behind Art of Modern Rock, I urge you to find Fucked Up and Photocopied. Still in print and available through online booksellers, this beautifully conceived if not beautiful volume (that would be wrong for a punk book, no?) presents the homegrown art of the punk scene between 1977 and 1985, much of it created by the musicians themselves.

Art of Modern Rock devotes some space to the art of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, who also provides the volume with an introduction, but Coyne is an experienced screen-printer and designer (Wayne, lose that distressed type and off-register halo; they’re as tired as a cap worn backwards). On the other hand, while most of the musicians’ art in Fucked Up and Photocopied demonstrates all the scissors-and-paste savoir-faire of a ransom note, it does have unmistakable energy and integrity.

The comix ‘n’ constructivism look has gone mainstream through the efforts of such as Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, who co-produced RAW and now are regulars in The New Yorker. It also characterizes the best work in Art of Modern Rock and Fucked Up and Photocopied. As Jello Biafra wrote in the latter book, “A good punk flyer will grab your attention, make you laugh, or piss you off—hopefully, all at the same time.” Not a bad description of the music, either.

--John Thorn


Anonymous Rob Weychert said...

Nice review. I just wanted to point out that what your refer to as the AOMR layout's "relentless shoehorning" is a fairly accurate representation of the posters in their natural environment. Granted, this is an idealized environment where the cream of the crop all share the same wall space instead of standing out as individuals in an ocean of lesser work.

I can understand the desire to admire these posters in an isolated context, but I wonder if that isn't dishonest to the real rock poster experience, which is essentially a rich, dense visual competition.

9:33 AM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

Well stated objection to my P.O.V, Rob, and a thought-provoking defense of the books's design. And yet ... if form is to follow function, which still seems to me sound theory and practice, then shouldn't the AOMR design provide an experience pleasing to those holding the book rather than those who might imagine they were strolling through the galleries at SXSW?

In my view it is not the business of the book to be honest (buzzword fraught with peril, as you surely know) to the real (buzzword #2) rock poster experience. The book must rise or fall on its own terms, just as the art must.

BTW, checked out your website and it is outstanding.

john thorn

11:34 AM  

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