Chuck Sperry’s Utopian Provocations

On September 10, 2018, in Events, News, by Ben Marks
"Thalia" tapestry at Taller Mexicano de Gobelinos in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo by Shaun Roberts.

“Thalia” tapestry at Taller Mexicano de Gobelinos in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo by Shaun Roberts.

This fall, two challenges await visitors to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The first is “Litmus Test: Works on Paper from the Psychedelic Era,” an exhibition of 80 or more pieces. The second is “All Access: Exploring Humanism in the Art of Chuck Sperry,” which promises 40 or so prints, original drawings, and tapestries by the San Francisco artist.

The first challenge will likely be easier for most viewers to pass, especially if they are fans of psychedelic rock art. Such viewers already embrace the iconography, attitude, and underlying idealism that characterized the better angels of the psychedelic era, to say nothing of the color riot that’s typical of the genre. But “Litmus Test” intrigues for its decision to bring together the work of actual rock-poster artists from the 1960s (San Francisco’s so-called “Big Five” of Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin, and Alton Kelley, plus Detroit’s Gary Grimshaw), a noted photographic chronicler of Detroit’s psychedelic scene (Leni Sinclair), and fine artists whose work has been influenced by the output of their graphic-art colleagues (Alex and Allyson Grey, Isaac Abrams). Completing “Litmus Test” is a bit of harmless nostalgia in the form of ordinary pieces of perforated paper pretending to be illicit sheets of blotter acid, prepared by the likes of Mark Mothersbaugh, H.R. Giger, S. Clay Wilson, and Chuck Sperry. It all sounds worth a visit, although “Litmus Test” is bound to be a cakewalk compared to the real thing to which the exhibition’s title alludes.

"Gaia," 2018, 20 x 26.25 inches. Oak Panel. Edition of 30.

“Gaia,” 2018, 20 x 26.25 inches. Oak Panel. Edition of 30.

Chuck Sperry is the ostensible link between the two exhibitions, though more in spirit than by virtue of the coincidence of his contributions. In fact, Sperry’s “test” is actually much tougher than the one presented in “Litmus,” in no small part because of the uniformly beautiful appearance of his pieces. Sperry must know that some viewers will get no deeper than the surface of his work, misinterpreting his screenprints as contemporary updates of “pretty-girl art” from the 1940s and ’50s or the advertising graphics of Art Nouveau. Both of those associations are true enough as far as mere appearances go, but Sperry’s “ladies,” as they are known among rock-poster collectors, and “muses,” as they are called by those who gravitate to his fine-art prints, should really be seen as what the artist calls “utopian provocations,” intended as vehicles for social and spiritual transcendence rather than cheesecake to be ogled and vicariously consumed.

As if the sheer beauty of his work was not distracting enough, Sperry makes our leap of faith in his “provocations” even more complicated by literally wallpapering the skin of his silver-metallic beauties. The world, the artist appears to suggest, is preoccupied with external decoration—we have become experts at judging books by their covers. In the context of colorful utopian provocations in dark dystopian times, the trick is to figure out how to get past seductive surfaces in order to transform beauty into beautiful action.

Chthoneon is the latest book by Chuck Sperry.

Chthoneon is the latest book by Chuck Sperry.

To help viewers get there, Sperry has released Chthoneon, the second of two self-published books about his work in as many years. As in Helikon, published in 2017, Sperry pairs reproductions of his art (via gorgeous photography by Shaun Roberts) with some of the literature that has inspired him. Helikon placed photographs of his muses, printed on wood panels, alongside their corresponding Orphic Hymns, some of which date to the 3rd century B.C. That book also gave us lyrics by Nick Cave, for whom Sperry has created numerous rock posters, as well as poems by Ovid, Homer, and Hesiod, along with the writing of a few contemporary authors.

At 136 pages, Chthoneon has a similar organization and format, although the literary focus is somewhat less reliant on the words of ancient Greeks. Sure, Aristophanes is represented, but other authors contributing poems and prose to Chthoneon include Margaret Atwood, whose dystopian Handmaid’s Tale has become a cautionary parable for our dystopian Trump-Pence-Kavanaugh era. Chthoneon also gives viewers who can’t make it to Fort Wayne their first look at three new tapestries Sperry had produced at Taller Mexicano de Gobelinos in Guadalajara, Mexico, whose artisans have made 10- and 11-foot-tall versions of “Thalia,” “Demeter,” and “Semele.” Enlarging his muses to heroic proportions puts them on a pedestal of sorts, which would seem to make them even less accessible to us mortals, but that’s just Sperry playing the sprite, goading us once again into finding the humanity in ourselves.

Tapestry in process at Taller Mexicano de Gobelinos. Photo by Shaun Roberts.

Tapestry in process at Taller Mexicano de Gobelinos. Photo by Shaun Roberts.

“Litmus Test: Works on Paper from the Psychedelic Era” and “All Access: Exploring Humanism in the Art of Chuck Sperry” open on September 14 with a party from 6 to 9 p.m. “Litmus Test” runs through November 11, 2018; “All Access” runs through December 9, 2018. For more information, visit the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.


Vertical stabilizer of a Lockheed P-38. © Bob Seidemann

Most rock-poster fans know Bob Seidemann (1941-2017) for his 1967 photograph of the Grateful Dead standing in a Daly City suburb, his portrait of Janis Joplin wearing only a cascade of beads, and his album covers for Jerry Garcia, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, and Blind Faith. But by the mid-1980s, Seidemann had wearied of the “cruel and shallow money trench,” as Hunter S. Thompson once described the music business, so he set his sights upon loftier subjects: airplanes, the pilots who flew them, and the engineers who designed them.

For the next 15 years, Seidemann pointed his camera at fighter jets left to rust in the California desert, commercial aircraft being assembled at a Boeing plant outside of Seattle, and even a few intercontinental nuclear bombers at an airfield south of Moscow. By the time he was done, Seidemann had organized 302 of the thousands photographs he took over that decade and a half into three thematic portfolios, known collectively as “Airplane as Art.”

From September 13, 2018, through February 2019, two dozen of these stunning black-and-white photographs will be on view at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. Focusing on Seidemann’s more abstract and minimal compositions, the show offers viewers a curated peek inside Seidemann’s mammoth body of work. It’s a rare opportunity to glimpse a lesser-known side of this multidimensional artist, whose interests flew far beyond the world of rock ‘n’ roll.

The opening reception for Bob Seidemann’s exhibition at MSRI on September 13 is free, open to the public, and runs from 5:45 – 8:00 p.m. For directions and parking information, click here. To learn more about Seidemann’s “Airplane as Art” series, check out this article at Collectors Weekly.


Curator Scott Montgomery calls Lee Conklin’s “Faces” drawing the artist’s Sistine Chapel. This print of the drawing is via D.King Gallery.

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.

Yes, the Santana album cover will be on display at the HSAC’s new Lee Conklin exhibition.

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.”

One of Montgomery’s favorite Lee Conklin’s pieces is “Quintessential Poemster,” a work from the 1990s.

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!”

A Lee Conklin poster for Moonalice from 2013.

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.


Rock Art By The Bay 2018 Thank You

On July 2, 2018, in News, by TRPS

TRPS Rock Art By The Bay 2018 Thank You

Thanks to all of you who attended Rock Art By The Bay this past Saturday. It was a great event and a special shout-out to our hosts, Claudia Pamparana and Rodger Davis, for allowing us to invade Faction Brewing. They could not have been more gracious and their building was perfect for the show!

We hope everyone had a great time and were able to add new art to your collection. It was especially fun to introduce many of Faction’s Saturday regulars to the world of gig poster art and give them the chance to meet artists.

In the meantime, if you missed Rock Art By The Bay, our next event, TRPS Festival of Rock Poster 2018 is set for October 20 at the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. We hope to see you there!

RSVP on Facebook for Updates

📸 Pictures will be posted in a few weeks. Hashtag your social media with #RABTB18 or #TRPSFaction for a chance to have your photos included in the upcoming blog post. You can also email them to trpsorg[at]gmail[dot]com

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