American Artifact (2009) Directed by Merle Becker FilmBar Monday, July 30, 2012
See also: 10 Awesome Concert Posters at SXSW's Flatstock 33 In recent years there have been a slew of rockumentaries about long gone golden eras, from the disappearance of the mom and pop record store thanks to the big chain stores, to the obliteration of freeform radio thanks to corporate intervention and the death of sampling due to the litigious climate preventing its creative use now. Happily, American Artifact, the 2009 overview of the American rock poster, shows a niche in pop culture that has continued to thrive without the infusion or intrusion of corporate dollars.
Frank Kozik, one of the most irreverent of the latter poster artists (his iconic Soundgarden "Green Girl" poster he confesses took all of a half-hour to put together), at one points says his motivation is to provoke people into saying, "How can this exist? Who the fuck made this? " This movie illustrates time and time again how some of best fine art can be found where no one is expecting to see it.
Director Merle Becker takes us to the very beginning of rock, where concert posters created by local promoters were exactly like boxing posters with large block letters and disembodied heads. These posters, more artifact than art, were not expressions of a fan's enthusiasm for his favorite groups.
That didn't happen until the poster art explosion in the '60s, where San Francisco ballroom concerts promoted by Bill Graham or Chet Helms brought us the psychedelic eye challenging art of Alton Kelley, Stanley "Mouse" Miller, Victor Moscoso, Wes Wilson, and Rick Griffin, considered the "Big Five" of the movement. Ironically, one of the most punk rock moments of this documentary is when Moscoco outlines all the rules of traditional poster making and how he and his hippie contemporaries obliterated them by using vibrating colors, illegible (if you weren't stoned) typography, and eye-fatiguing layouts that required intense and slow scrutiny.
Once rock becomes a huge business thanks to big rock festivals, the rock poster disappears for a long time and the movie delves into the punk rock scene of the Reagan era, where Xerox flyers and handbills dominate. Although it slumps a bit during the hairfarmer band years, grunge jumpstarts things back to large full color posters with fluorescent colors and lots of misappropriated art from books and magazines.
Oddly enough, although fan driven, a very small percentage of rock poster art actually contains graphic depictions of the rock artists they are promoting -- more often they bring a pop art sensibility to the proceedings, you're more likely to find a corporate mascot like the Campbell soup kids or a beloved childhood cartoon like Huckleberry Hound lampooned.
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If there is a quibble to be made, it's that a broad overview such as this hasn't got the time to delve in depth with the individual participants.
The "Big Five" are given a great deal of coverage but it seems crazy that Becker could feature every artist she interviewed say how influential Rick Griffin's "flying eye" posters were and not inform viewers that Griffin was in a car accident on his way to San Francisco in 1967 where his left eye was dislocated. Or when Stanley Mouse is asked about his childhood and he says, "Let's not talk about that," and you later find out his Dad was a Disney animator who worked on Snow White.
Clearly beneath this lovefest bordering on infomercial in its enthusiasm there's an unhappy face that merits closer scrutiny elsewhere.
If American Artifact divides its audience at all, it's that half the viewers will be inspired to create silk-screened art and the other half will be inspired to go out and collect it.