Most hippie art is so played out: blown glass, felt paintings, peace, love and all that. Bob with his blunts, Jimi with his ax, Jerry with his hair. A whole lot of swirling colors: tie-dyed, silk-screened, kaleidoscopic. Even more flowers, whatever their power. Man, that black-lit mushroom sure is a trip.
Most of this stuff is pure crap. And it's definitely not hippie, what with the whole "free love" look having been reproduced, commodified and hawked to dorm-room stoners for years. One look at the crowd of your typical jam-band concert -- replete with longhaired kids talking on cell phones -- will tell you the whole hippie aesthetic is dead. It's been stylized, cleaned up and put on the shelves. Call it cashed.
But then there's Allen Ruppersberg.
Ruppersberg was a hippie -- he's got the pics to prove it -- but his work has evolved over the years. Today he's considered an avant member of conceptual art's old guard. Back in the late '60s and early '70s he made a name for himself with performances like Al's Café, where he set up a working diner à la Americana, with pine cones and cookies on the menu. (It was crazy, man.) He soon moved into text-based works with The Novel That Writes Itself, a collection of semiautobiographical observations printed on colorful posters and arranged seemingly at random. His work has been bouncing around ever since.
A few years ago, he learned his art students at UCLA had never heard of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Ginsberg's work was a seminal text of the beat generation. Its jumbled-up observations, laden with beatnik slang, set the tone for thousands of ne'er-do-wells to follow. And Ruppersberg's students had never heard of it.
It was on. The artist conceived "The Singing Posters," an exhibition devoted to Howl. New York and several other cities got it before we did (those bastards), but now it's on display here at Rice Gallery. And what a bright, strange trip it is.
Ruppersberg has covered two walls of the gallery's main room with hundreds of colorful posters. Vibrant greens, yellows, blues, reds and pinks abound. The first verse of Ginsberg's text is chopped up and printed out in various phonetic spellings and capitalizations. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness" -- Ginsberg's "Four score and seven years ago" -- has become "Y SAW thuh BEST MYNDZ uhv my jenuhRAYshin diSTROYD BY MADnis." With this transliteration of the first line, Ruppersberg has done a pretty good job of representing the meter of the original text. Elsewhere, he's more free with his capitalizations and spellings. No matter: By forcing the viewer to translate the work, Ruppersberg is emphasizing poetry as spoken word.
Thrown in with Howl are reprints of ads seen from the side of the road in L.A., such as "Child Custody Services," "Domino Tournament" or "Cash for Your House." And some of the other posters are blank.
The original poem was a mixed-up mess of catchphrases and emotions, just like the ambience of the period when it was penned (the mid-'50s). Ruppersberg's reworking of the poem plants it firmly in the age of ADHD, where chaos is king. Our cityscapes are jammed with mercantile cacophony, and the artist, by juxtaposing passages of Howl with advertisements, has done a good job of simulating this noise. (A tweaked version of the poem recently appeared in a radio ad for Wendy's: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by hunger.")
Within the gallery's small room, Ruppersberg has created a slightly different version of the installation. One wall is devoted entirely to passages from Howl, while the other is a checkerboard of solid colors and prints. Missing is the cool multicolored reflection offered by the glass wall in the main room.
On the table in the middle of the room rest copies of Ruppersberg's photocopied book, Haul or Wave Goodbye to Grandma -- "haul" being a phonetic spelling for "howl." Its volumes bound by plastic rings not unlike those used for college course packets, this book is an autobiographical account of the artist's life and times, with particular emphasis placed on the '60s and '70s. Here, there are pics of birthday cakes, his driver's license and his art. Clippings from the Monterey Pop Festival reside near clippings from Charles Manson's conviction. There are photographs of big-breasted and blindfolded women. There's even a page from a scholastic article titled "Hippies, Hypocrisy and Happiness."
The entire exhibition blurs together to present a wonderful portrayal of an era of immense social importance. Fundamentally, it's hippie art, but Ruppersberg steers clear of verbal clichés and hackneyed imagery as much as possible, making the exhibition perfect for a university gallery. He's showing college students there's more to hippies than bongs and wa-wa pedals. The left needs a shot in the arm, and Ruppersberg has given these kids a needle.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events