The Face of Rock and Roll

A new coffee table book spotlights a vital, neglected art genre and gives a few Houston poster artists their due

In the foreword to the stunningly magnificent new coffee table book Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion, Wayne Coyne waxed eloquent when discussing what he calls "the power of The Poster." "Both before the event and beyond the experience it will turn out to be," he wrote, "The Poster says, 'The event will be like this, it will feel like this, it really will have this atmosphere, this philosophy, this identity and a certain type of person will be there.' And then the event happens and is over. Yet The Poster, still living on, still having its purpose, is interpreted to say, 'The event was like this, it felt like this.' "

You won't be surprised to hear that Dennis King, who co-authored Art of Modern Rock with Paul Grushkin, agrees with that assessment. "It's really not about the bands, it's not about the music," he says. "It's about the art of the posters, and it really fits within that whole spectrum of what has happened through these generations -- Generation X and beyond. And the aesthetic of their music and clothing, the entire culture, is represented in these posters. I think as people look back at this, they are going to say, 'Look at this! This is what was really going on back in that time. These are the real, historic, cultural and artistic documents of that time.' "

I happen to believe he's right with that assessment -- after all, Toulouse-Lautrec was nothing but a rock poster artist in his day, and his works are among the most evocative of time and place in all of history. And that makes Art of Modern Rock -- all ten-plus pounds and 490 pages of it -- the mother of all "real, historic, cultural and artistic documents." Poster artists are on the front lines of the zeitgeist, and through their work you get a gritty, street-level feel for life in the 1990s -- our sexuality, our dreams, our fears, our ideals and our sense of humor. Since these bands are often on the cutting edge of the culture, these posters serve as snapshots of moments in time, often more evocative now than the music they were conceived to peddle.

Three of Uncle Charlie's best posters: Note the Crumb 
and Warhol influences. (Click to enlarge.)
Posters by Uncle Charlie
Three of Uncle Charlie's best posters: Note the Crumb and Warhol influences. (Click to enlarge.)

But you may be surprised to hear that while rock posters are as old as rock itself, the seeds of the modern era were planted in Austin in the late '80s, and that Houston is something of a hotbed for the art form. The work of two local artists -- Uncle Charlie and the single-monikered Jermaine -- are interviewed and figure prominently in the book, and there are also a few excellent works from the Heights-area design collective Brutefish.

But Austin was where the whole modern movement began. It was there that Frank Kozik and Lindsey Kuhn made a transformative technological breakthrough that was as earth-shattering to the world of rock poster art as the cotton gin had been to the antebellum South.

"Basically what Kozik is to this movement is that he was in the right place at the right time," says King. By that, he means that Kozik started doing gig posters on a silk-screen printer. "These things were big and oversized, full of bright colors, and he was very successful. So a lot of other artists thought they should give it a try, too. And that's where guys like Lindsey Kuhn come in: Lindsey was there with Frank from the very beginning doing his printing for him. Those are the two guys. If they weren't there, none of this would have happened."

P.K. -- pre-Kozik -- there had been gig posters, but most were simple affairs made on copy machines. Other methods were too expensive. "In those days you saw lots and lots of Xeroxed show flyers," King says. "Those were huge in the '70s, on the whole punk scene and on into the '80s, because everybody had access to a Xerox machine. Even a promoter could go in and say, 'I'm gonna do a one-color job on a press.' Well, that didn't cost much -- you could print a job for 50 bucks. And then if you got enterprising, you could do two colors. But nobody was doing six or eight colors. It wasn't economically feasible."

After Kozik and Kuhn, it was. "If you had your own screen-printing equipment, you could buy a couple of cans of ink and some blank posters and you could make posters on the cheap," King says. "That was really what sparked this whole movement -- that you really could do this yourself, that you didn't have to go through the commercial channels."

One of the first to cotton to the new method was Houston's Uncle Charlie. Charlie had been doing Xerox flyers for his band, the fabled, recently re-formed Houston punk combo Dresden 45 and, after he got kicked out of D45, others as well. And in about 1990, Uncle Charlie went to Austin and apprenticed himself to Kozik. "If it wasn't for him, I never would have known that you could do that stuff in color," he said an interview with the Press this past December. "So he took me under his wing for a while and taught me color schemes, color separation and all that. He's one of those people -- just so great, super-friendly."

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