For a long time now, rock-poster fans in the Bay Area have been forced to share Chuck Sperry—lives in the Haight, works in Oakland—with the rest of the world. Arriving in San Francisco in 1989, Sperry has been regularly getting out of town to recharge his creative batteries since 1999, the year he first started exhibiting widely in Europe. He spent most of 2006 in Milan, and in 2012 his travels took him to Argentina, where he lectured, exhibited, and conducted workshops. The following year, Sperry installed a number of Madonna-adjacent prints in a 500-year-old Italian church. And then, in 2019, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sperry bought a little getaway in the south of France, although he pointedly did not give up his local apartment or studio. Whew!
This year, the Sperry roadshow made what was perhaps the most important stop of the artist’s 40-year career with the spring opening of his pandemic-delayed retrospective, “Color x Color: Selections from the Chuck Sperry Archive,” which continues at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art through July 10. Featuring more than 150 screen prints, as well as a trio of sumptuous tapestries, the exhibition—which takes the first part of its name from the artist’s 12-pound, 752-page tome from 2020—showcases Sperry as, in the words of art critic Carlo McCormick, “a fine artist who has chosen to make work for the masses.”
Let the record show that the masses have had no trouble finding their way to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to revel in what McCormick calls the “eye-candy” of his posters. You should make the pilgrimage, too.
Despite the shared title of the exhibition and book, McCormick’s essay for both spends little time on the color or content of Sperry’s art, which has evolved from comic-book caricatures for Incredibly Strange Wrestling to his elegant “Panic ladies,” plus a good deal of compositions that fit neither of those descriptions. Instead, McCormick focuses on Sperry’s place in the art world and the tactical choices he has made as an artist. “Context rather than content,” McCormick writes, “or more simply put, Sperry’s choice of medium and audience rather than his imagery, is fundamental in relaying his cultural politics.”
True enough, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the content of Sperry’s art is probably more important than its context to the legions of collectors—particularly those snapping up prints depicting conventionally beautiful women, their skin overlaid with damask patterns and wearing little more than the flowers in their hair—whose ardor for Sperry’s work has driven his prices into fine-art realms.
McCormick is right, though, when he describes Sperry’s “graphics” as “subversive.” In Sperry’s hands, depictions of conventionally beautiful women can appear downright radical, especially in his work of the last dozen or so years. Sperry’s muses flaunt their eye-candy curves and overlaid decorative patterns to teach rather than titillate, although they manage to do that, too. To counteract the expected male gaze, Sperry’s subjects stare right back, perhaps because they know that when they will be called upon to support the artist’s cultural politics, the funds they will help raise will, unironically, go to the support of women’s rights.
The opportunity to see 150 such pieces in one place, from the sirens he’s conjured for Widespread Panic to the collaborations he’s executed with fellow artists like Chris Shaw, is rare, so get yourself to Fort Wayne—just figure it the fuck out—before the exhibition closes in mid-July. Between now and then, if your travel plans include a trip to Europe, Sperry will be back in France for a pair of exhibitions in Paris and Lyon.
And if you’re one of those Bay Area rock-poster fans who’s never been crazy about having to share Chuck Sperry with the rest of the world, then simply head over to the Hall of Flowers on October 15 for the first TRPS Festival of Rock Posters since 2019. Chuck Sperry will be there, perhaps with a special print for the occasion. The masses, which in this case include those of us who like to think of ourselves as Sperry’s neighbors, look forward to welcoming our favorite adoptive son home.