For many music fans, Lee Conklin is the “Santana-lion” guy, a reference, of course, to his famous design for Santana’s first album, whose central image was taken from Conklin’s Fillmore West poster advertising a pair of 1968 shows headlined by Steppenwolf (August 27, 28, 29, with Santana at the bottom of a three-act bill) and the Grateful Dead (August 30, 31, and September 1). To be clear, BG-134 is a stunner, and few artists are fortunate enough to have created a work of art that is so universally recognized and beloved. But such acclaim can also be a trap, blinding the eyes of the world to an artist’s post-masterpiece accomplishments.
Half a century later, a new exhibition of work by Lee Conklin at the Haight Street Art Center attempts to correct the impression that Conklin’s best days are behind him. Curated by Scott Montgomery of the University of Denver, the exhibition features almost 50 posters over the last 50 years—from that Santana album cover to his recent work for Moonalice. In addition, the show will give viewers a rare peek at many of Conklin’s original drawings and sketchbooks.
For Montgomery, Conklin’s draftsmanship is the anchor of his work. “He can do the big bold line when he wants to,” Montgomery says, “but he can also do a fabulous light line, with occasional cross-hatching when he’s trying to get more dimensional. As a result, he works comfortably in both two- and three-dimensional visual planes, which suits his style well because there are so many beats between the layers of his imagery. It’s actually pretty demanding artwork.”
Anyone who has looked at Conklin’s art knows this—often, the most difficult part of his work is keeping up with his imagination. “My favorite Lee Conklin quote,” Montgomery says, “is ‘Let’s share imagination.’ I love that.” In other words, Conklin brings his imagination to a piece, so the viewer is advised to do the same, making a Conklin exhibition less of a spectator sport than most art shows. “Conklin’s art is the gift that keeps on giving,” Montgomery says. “Sometimes I see things that maybe aren’t even there. I call it the Conklin effect.”
At first glance, and given his ’60s bona fides, the Conklin effect might seem the product of psychedelics, but according to Montgomery’s conversations with the artist—which one of these days he promises will be captured in a book—Conklin’s often hallucinatory psychedelic imagery preceded his personal experience with psychedelics. “His work resonates profoundly with psychedelic visuality,” Montgomery agrees, “but it’s something that he developed independently. His work was not acid inspired—it was acid resonant. But that must have been the ultimate light-bulb moment—Lee’s first acid trip!”
Montgomery’s Conklin light-bulb moment is the drawing behind BG-112, which was a Fillmore/Winterland poster for shows headlined by Moby Grape, with support by Traffic, Lemon Pipers, and Spirit, in March of 1968. “Lee Conklin’s Sistine Chapel is that ‘Faces’ drawing,” Montgomery says. “Not the poster, the poster is really brutal, with that printing over one of his finest drawings.”
What Montgomery loves about the drawing, among other things, is its depth. “Lee just sees layers everywhere,” he says, “so his work reveals the poetics of visual possibilities.” And yes, it’s trippy, but according to Montgomery, “Lee’s not trying to show us an acid trip—his work is already inside what the acid trip is showing us. It’s a match made in Huxley heaven.”
“Lee Conklin: 50 Years of Psychedelic Art” opens at the Haight Street Art Center on August 1, 2018, and runs through September 30. The opening reception is on August 1 from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. The following night, HSAC will present a conversation with the artist and curator Scott Montgomery. For more information, visit haightstreetart.org.