Faces in the lion

When local punk-rock artist Paul Imagine put together a show of the rock era’s poster artists, he made sure to invite Lee Conklin, a veteran of San Francisco’s acid-soaked golden era

The face of rock has changed many times over the course of its half-century existence. And right along with it has evolved the rock poster—a medium, often seen tacked onto telephone poles or pasted on walls in urban areas, traditionally used to advertise concerts. Once considered only an inexpensive, disposable form of public notice, the rock poster has become one of the hotter collectibles on the market.

During rock’s early days, from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, rock posters were generally easy to read, with legible lettering and simple graphics. Fueled by the emergence of San Francisco’s acid-fueled hippie culture in the mid-1960s, however, rock posters began to use much more vibrant colors, and their lettering became progressively more difficult to read. Since then, rock posters have continued to portray the eras in which they were created, functioning as a window into the aesthetic sensibilities of their respective eras.

Throughout the past decade, rock-poster collecting has surged, and the recognition of rock-poster art as a legitimate art form—by such prestigious places as the Smithsonian Institution and the San Francisco Museum of Art—has added to the medium’s luster.

Although thousands of beautifully designed concert posters have been produced throughout rock’s historic span, the majority of the artists responsible are less well-known than their contemporaries from the fine-art world. Historically, art purists have placed rock posters on a lower rung than fine-art pieces. Fortunately, in recent years, art shows dedicated to rock posters have begun to alter that fixed mindset; they allow the public to meet many of the artists in person, view their creations and purchase originals and prints.

Paul Imagine, a local rock-poster artist himself, has assembled a show displaying rare rock posters and featuring five of the finest artists in the milieu. On Sunday, January 19, at the downtown art space known as Joe’s Style Shop, Imagine and Lee Conklin, Dennis Loren, John Seabury, Nels “Jagmo” Jacobson and Chuck Sperry will present their artwork in person, at an all-day show called Rock Art Revulsion.

Lee Conklin with his most famous creation.

Photo By Lance Armstrong

Headlining this unique local art show is Lee Conklin, an artist best known for his drawing of a lion, which appeared on the cover of the San Francisco band Santana’s first album in 1969.

Conklin, who now resides in the Sierra foothills, began his career as the cartoonist for the Calvin College Chimes in Michigan. He first gained notice in the rock and art worlds via the 33 posters he designed for the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco between 1968 and 1969.

One identifying characteristic of Conklin’s work is his intricate fine lines and hidden imagery. He is a master of detail who seldom creates a poster that can be absorbed fully in one viewing. Conklin’s artwork is the antithesis of one-dimensional drawings; within the main image or images of his artwork, he often surprises his viewers by hiding faces, hands, feet, ears and other human body parts. Even his lettering style is often complex, outlining hidden faces or including subtleties such as leaves or birds’ wings.

That Conklin’s Fillmore posters remain extremely popular among collectors today is a testament to his original intentions. “Even back then, I always believed I was creating for the ages,” said Conklin. Today, Conklin continues to create rock-poster art with much detail and has no plans of slowing down. One of his latest works, a series he calls “new age cheesecake,” as well as some of his earlier rock-poster art, will be on display at Imagine’s show on Sunday.

Like Conklin, artists Loren, Seabury and Jacobson bring a long, historic resume of rock-poster artistry to this show, and Sperry offers the show his own distinct “new-school” art style.

A native of Detroit, Loren has built his life around music and art. He began by playing in bands and later becoming one of the nation’s more successful rock-poster artists. Since 1967, he has created art for such iconic acts as Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground. Besides rock posters, Loren also restores rare and historic jazz posters and creates artwork for record covers, 45 sleeves, CD inserts, magazines and books.

Seabury, inspired by the underground, adult-themed comic-book series Zap Comix (which featured the work of legendary cartoonists Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, famous San Francisco rock-poster artists Victor Moscoso and the late Rick Griffin, and Los Angeles painter Robert Williams), brings a cartoonist’s vision to the art of rock. In 1974, as a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Berkeley native formed a rock band named Psycotic Pineapple. As his band became one of the Bay Area’s better known acts, Seabury’s cartoon poster art for the band also obtained a large following. His depiction of a crazy pineapple man (“Pynoman”) continues to be a favorite among poster collectors and fans of his band. Seabury also has created CD art, including a CD-package design that was nominated for a Grammy in 2001. Seabury is additionally recognized for his silkscreen posters for such well-known rock acts as Radiohead, Adam Ant, Todd Rundgren and Pavement.

During the late 1970s, Jacobson lived in Austin, Texas, a city known for its large music scene. It was during this time that Jacobson grew fond of the city’s “gorgeous posters, posted all over the place.” As promotion manager for Austin’s popular Club Foot, Jacobson hired artists to do the club’s poster artwork. But because of his love for art, he eventually began to create his own poster art for the club. Jacobson continues to build his resume of art, which includes posters for bands including U2, R.E.M., Stevie Ray Vaughan and New Order. Jacobson is a five-time recipient of the Austin Chronicle’s Austin Music Award for best concert poster.

Fresh off his European art-book promotion tour (26 shows in 30 days), poster artist Sperry will transport his jetlag to Sacramento for yet another show. Along with artist Ron Donovan, Sperry is the new buzz of the poster community. Mixing their own unique colors (which includes their specialty of shiny, metallic paint) and printing original posters at their own Firehouse Kustom Rockart Company, Sperry and Donovan have become world-renowned artists, creating posters for such musical acts as the Rolling Stones, U2, Ozzy Osbourne and Madonna. On average, Sperry and Donovan create three or more rock posters per week.

As for local poster artist Imagine, his art is unique compared with that of the other artists in this show in that he is the only artist who concentrates solely on punk-rock art. Beginning his career in 1998 by drawing small, black-and-white flyers for such local punk-rock bands as E.S.D., the Deseptikons, Angora Machinegun and Red Tape, Imagine soon added T-shirts, buttons and stickers to his artistic endeavors. In 1999, strongly inspired by independent-label poster artists such as Sperry, Derek Hess and Emek, Imagine began to produce small-run silkscreen posters for Anodyne Entertainment. It presented local bands, such as Koi, Hella, Whiskey Rebels and Pressure Point, at the Capitol Garage.

Through his silkscreen poster art, Imagine soon attracted the attention of the Sacramento Rock and Radio Museum, which requested that his artwork be presented at the museum’s second-Saturday art exhibit. That exhibit was successful and led to Imagine’s artwork gradually becoming a common sight at some of the Bay Area’s largest poster-collectors’ shows.

Through these shows, Imagine increasingly became inspired to transfer the energy and excitement of these shows to his own city. “Although I had a great time at the Bay Area poster shows, I really wanted to organize my very own show in Sacramento,” he said. “After meeting several of the top rock-poster artists at these shows, including Conklin, I knew I had to follow through with my dream.”

According to Imagine, the process of organizing this event was quite simple. “We, as poster artists, are always looking for a place to display our art,” he said. “So, when I contacted the other artists, they were incredibly responsive to my idea. And once I got Conklin to confirm, I knew this would be an awesome show because he is definitely one of the all-time greats of rock ’n’ roll art. Combined with the other artists, this show should be simply amazing!”