Like the newspaper and the scripted television drama, concert posters are a dying medium. In Civilian Art Projects’ “Paper Jam,” the featured East Coast artists have a homemade, vintage sensibility in much of their work, as if MySpace were never a competitor—and when it comes to art, they’re certainly right. Beyond telling us where to find the next show, the perfect poster captures a musical mood. For instance, Public Domain’s poster for the California band Rogue Wave shows a dove drowning in its own tears, an evocation of the group’s soaring, delicate melodies. The irreverent pop-punk of Philly-based band the Wonder Years, on the other hand, is depicted by James Helmer’s image of the Kool-Aid Man in S&M attire, getting a piggyback ride from an underwear-clad Cap’n Crunch.
The numbers don't lie: While CD sales continue their slide into oblivion, vinyl albums are coming back in a big way, with influential acts like Radiohead, Wilco and The Decemberists all issuing their new recordings in premium-quality (and premium-price) vinyl pressings aimed at audiophiles and collectors.
Some listeners prefer the sound of vinyl, of course, but the larger physical dimensions of the long-player album are a big part of its appeal, too. For the two decades between the rise of the LP and the rise of MTV, album covers were the primary visual medium through which listeners formed an impression of the favorite bands and musicians.
But not the only visual medium. The rock poster was once a major avenue of concert advertising. Though posters haven't surrendered their promotional role entirely in the blog era, nowadays silkscreened, limited-edition, show-specific gig posters are both a vibrant artist's medium and a cool souvenir for a band's fans.
Which brings us to Anthony Dihle, who makes some of the D.C. area's most arresting showbills under his nom-du-poster Dirty Pictures. Dihle has assembled work by more than two dozen Mid-Atlantic poster artists for "Paper Jam," a new exhibit he has curated for the Penn Quarter's Civilian Art Projects gallery.
"It's a cross-section of established and emerging artists and design companies," Dihle says, adding that the bands for which these posters were made run across the notoriety scale. The visual tone of the posters is as varied as the music represented. "Some of them are sharp and slick. Others are rough, organic, chaotic, schiziophrenic in its look," Dihle says. "The basic requirement is that it's interesting. It's what's going on that's good."
Despite the abundance of out-of-town talent, the District's thriving homegrown poster scene is well-represented by contributions from John Foster, Tim Gibbon (who posters as Dynamite Printworks), Nick Pimentel (Planaria Design) and Jeffrey Everett (El Jefe Design), among others.
But one of Dihle's favorite posters in the show comes from the Philadelphia artist James Heimer. The poster promotes a band called The Wonder Years, and it's probably a little -- or a lot -- too risqué to be shown here. Suffice it to say that there's a side to a Cap'N Crunch lookalike's relationship with a Kool-Aid Man lookalike that may never have occurred to you during the long hours you've doubtless spent contemplating Cap'N Crunch's relationship with Kool-Aid Man.
Dihle says he likes the humorous way Heimer appropriates the iconography of the TV ads to which most children of the 1980s were exposed ad nauseum.
"It also has a handmade look to it that I'm very much a fan of," Dihle says. "It's not dignified, but it's fun."
Dihle began making his own posters five years ago, soon after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design.
"Providence has a great poster scene," he says.
He began by creating posters for fake bands and venues, then advertising his services on Craigslist. Real acts soon came calling. Dihle enjoys the process of listening to an unfamiliar band's music and thinking about how to represent it in a visually compelling way. Ideally, the result is a happy marriage of the band's sensibility with own.
"It feels like a really sincere compliment if somebody buys a poster and they have no idea who the band is," he says.
These days, it can be difficult to imagine music separated from it’s accompanying visual image. Whether through videos, album art, or web presence, there’s great importance placed on developing an aesthetic that makes a statement that can speak to what an artist is about. Even when artists claim to eschew or act against any deliberate imagery, that act or supposed lack there of serves in defining their visual statement.
One of the more interesting mediums for exploring this imagery is also the one that has the longest history. The story of creating modern printed posters for promoting shows or events extends back to at least the 19th century when mass printing techniques allowed for wide reproduction.
Jump forward to today — when computers and internet are serving as a pretty significant aid in both facilitating the design process itself and fostering growth of a design community.
Festivals like South By Southwest or sites like Gig Posters allow for ideas to spread and provide an opportunity for fans and artists to connect with likeminds from all over the country and beyond.
Civilian Art Projects latest show, Paper Jam: The Art and Grime of the East Coast Rock Poster, is celebrating this very idea. On a slightly more localized and regional level, Civilian is highlighting the work of established and emerging artists side by side, showcasing a range of styles created by a selection of east coast postermakers.
As show curator Anthony Dihle states, “Most of the work is home-brewed by the artist and merges the illustration of sound and lyrics with the requisite need for a poster to simultaneously advertise a show and commemorate it.”
Indie artists and DIY attitudes have certainly taken a position of dominance in dictating pop culture, for better or for worse–since the further it travels, the more it morphs into something else. There is of course a pretty deep rabbit hole we could go down on the co-opting of culture and the effect it has on art, but will save for another day. Let’s focus on the better part for now and enjoy the art.
Opening Reception: Friday, June 12, 2009, 7 - 9pm
For Civilian's second exhibition of music-based posters, PAPER JAM: The Art and Grime of the East Coast Rock Poster focuses on the works of 27 artists from the East Coast.
Organized by Anthony Dihle, the exhibition features a cross-section of artists, designers, and printmakers including Ana Benaroya, Jordan Bernier, Rick Bowman, Chris Cernoch, Kate Crosgrove, Anthony Dihle (Dirty Pictures), Jefferey Everett (El Jefe Design), JP Flexner, John Foster (Bad People Good Things), Jeff Fry, Tim Gibbon (Dynamite Printworks), James Heimer, Edward Kelley, Daniel Kent, Chris Kline, Nick Kulp (Undercover Zero), Large Mammal, Robb Leef, Drew Liverman, Magick Outlaw, Nick Pimentel (Planaria Design), Gregory Pizzoli, Post Typography, Brian Potash (Devilish Ink), Public Domain, and Warm.