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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.

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."

After returning to Houston, Uncle Charlie became the visual complement to the city's music scene for the next five or so years. "Charlie came in really big," King says. "I think Charlie really knew how to deal with the venues and the bands, and he understood the look of the times. He just knew how to capture it. He was in the right place and the right time and he knew what to do about it. He used to have billboards for radio stations in Houston. One of the things that happened with him was that as the type of music that was popular changed, his style was not really changing with that music. I think that the people who related to a band like Nine Inch Nails -- which is very dark -- weren't as attracted to his very wild, cartoony-bright style, because that band's music is very dark and gloomy."

"I'm stuck on the bold, bright colors," Charlie told me. "I don't know why. I'm also a package designer, and my favorite packages are stuff like candy bars -- you know, real bold and bright graphics. Maybe it's the kid in me."

"I think that really gave a guy like Jermaine a chance to move in, because stylistically he was quite different," King says. "His style has changed dramatically over the years. He's built up a real following because his stuff is so unique."

Indeed it is. Jermaine takes extreme delight in fucking with people's heads. There's his take on the Beatles: For a Chemical Brothers poster, he took a resolutely cheery Sgt. Pepper's-era image of the Liverpool lads and transformed them into wild-eyed demons and zombies. His locally infamous unhinged teddy bear series was the product of the same idea: Take something huggable and cuddly and turn it into a nightmare. "They're security, they're innocence," he said in the book. "So, when you take something innocent and make it eight feet tall with sharp teeth, weird red eyes and little Manson Family X's on its forehead, not to mention the mysterious number 72, it freaks people out -- makes them think -- and they don't really know why."

Uncle Charlie is usually far more lighthearted. "Most of the time the band seems to come established with a personality, and I try to emulate that as best as I can, but also try to have fun with it," he said. "For example, I've got a U2 poster that looks like a Brillo pad package. I did that for a couple of reasons. The first was that the band is now more of a brand than a band, so that was the inside joke. But then I used Brillo because I looked down at a newspaper on my desk and it was the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Menil, which actually had his Brillo pad art piece. So I thought to myself, I can emulate Andy Warhol andsort of make fun of U2, or at least make a statement. But also make a U2 poster that a U2 fan would definitely want to own."

King says it's not just U2 fans or even music fans who want to own these posters now. He says that the wider art world has taken notice -- especially overseas. "If you travel to Europe right now, any European art museum you go to has this book prominently displayed," he says. "People over there want to bring U.S. poster artists over there to tour. I think it's very similar to a lot of other things -- people don't appreciate what they have in their own backyard."

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