John Slate had his first "whoa, cool man" visual trip in early-'70s Austin. Some hippie neighbors had plastered their walls with black-light posters, and listening to Slate talk about one particular poster "Ghost Ship" you can almost smell the marijuana and feel the sticky bean-bag vinyl. He says simply, but with awe, "It looked like it was coming out of the wall."
At only six years old, Slate was hardly a part of the counterculture, and he certainly wasn't chemically enhanced. But decades later the Dallas photograph archivist, who calls himself "a student of history and popular culture," is still fascinated with the kitsch of his childhood. In his exhibit "Psychedelic Relics: Black Light Posters and American Popular Culture," Slate seeks to bring black-light posters out of faux-'70s love pads and into the respectability-conferring art world. Well, sort of. The exhibit, which has hit Austin and Dallas, stops this weekend at No tsu oH, the same downtown coffee shop that recently brought you a
wall full of naked-girl sketches called the "Pimp Daddy Show."
"Like black velvet painting," Slate says, black-light posters are "a lowbrow art form that is so far beneath most people's standards of 'good' art that I find it highly worthy of study." The posters first appeared in the late '60s and peaked in popularity in the early '70s. Their themes range from pure optical illusion to sex and pop icons such as Jimi Hendrix. They're cheap and recreational (as in "recreational drug use").
But for Slate, "the attitude of social and political movements and the delight of heightened visual sense" make black-light posters art though he admits that they're art for the masses. Poster designs are often ripped off, poorly executed and just plain cheesy. "Black-light art is bastardized and watered-down, not to mention commercial," he says. "What was once perceived as rebellious became little more than a style to appropriate for commercial gain."
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Even as art for the masses, the posters generate a surprising lack of appreciation. In a time when anything offbeat seems to attract fanatic collector cults, often fueled by the Internet, black-light designs remain almost untouched. In fact, according to Dallas collector and bookstore owner Jason Cohen, there's not one Web site featuring black-light posters. He plans to correct this: Cohen is creating a site for the 500-plus vintage posters he recently acquired from a customer. He says he might sell them when the black-light market picks up. Right now vintage posters don't go for more than about $20. That's only twice as much as it costs to pick up a brand-new flying dragon or Pokémon poster, but the new ones aren't quite like the old. New York-based Funky Enterprises is one of only three companies that still supply black-light posters to places such as Spencer's Gifts. In 1971, when Funky started up, its designs included a zodiacal chart of sexual positions. The company has since started manufacturing posters of teenybopper musicians like Britney Spears and has toned down its black-light division. "No nipples, no pubic hair," said a spokesman. "You're not going to find that anywhere."
Unless, of course, you check out "Psychedelic Relics." The exhibit features over 30 posters culled from various personal collections and displayed under black light. Much of the show represents Slate's particular interest in African-American erotic political designs, such as Black Pearl and Militant Miss. But there are also enough pure psychedelics to keep any day-tripper happy. Rodney Perkins, of the "Invisible College" (www.home.earthlink.net/~rdperkins/), will provide the funk, soul and "strange jazz-oriented sounds" necessary for such an art event.
Slate hopes his black-light posters, in the right atmosphere, can evoke the era that he narrowly missed. "By reproducing the groovy feelings and visions of the hippie generation," he says, "everyday people whether connected to the movement or not can experience in a darkened room a bit of the psychedelic experience." Right on.
"Psychedelic Relics" is on display at No tsu oH, 314 Main, August 13 and 14 from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The opening reception is Friday at 9 p.m. Call (713)222-0443 for information.