Rock, Paper, Show

Consider the gig poster, folks. You see them pretty much everywhere. Often rectangular in shape, flat, almost always printed on the cheapest paper stock available and pasted all over areas where decidedly “cool” people matriculate.

They’re crumpled, torn at the corners and advertise the endless hopes and dreams of stardom and fame for a vast array of local and touring musicians, artists, comedians and any other form of entertainment they’ll allow into your local bars. Before the advent of the Internet, they were the cheapest and easiest form of getting an event noticed.

The informational form of art known as the poster (and yes, they are art) isn’t by any means a new one (historians have dated the modern poster we all know now back to the mid 19th century), nor is it perfect, but there is something truly beautiful about the convergence of artistry and information. To somehow convey both the style of poster artist and tone of the performer within the confines of a sheet of paper, whilst also telling you what you need to know and why it matters.

In this moment, I can almost feel the daggered stares from the highbrow art community. Concert posters as a legitimate art form?! What next? movie ticket stubs? Theater programs?  It may not be considered a “high” art, but it is a post modern art form unto itself. One that is just now getting its’ due, with poster art galleries popping up in New York, Toronto and London.

Upon chance (and a Google event search when I should’ve been working) I was beyond elated to find out that there was an exhibit set to highlight the rock concert poster in all its glory.

The gallery in question is located at the Byers-Evans house, a historic Denver residence now restored and converted into gallery and museum space. Until May 10, it will also be home to The Family Dog Denver: Rock Posters and Music in Denver 1967-68.  Curator for the event Dr. Scott Montgomery had the arduous task of putting together the exhibit in only two months time.

“I don’t know necessarily if it was a task given to me or a task I have given myself,” he said. “But (the work) was rather easy, as the pieces were time specific. Almost self-selected. You could really just put these pieces up with thumb tacks. It visually sells itself, because they’re so striking and colorful. But to contextualize and frame the era was much more difficult.”

Montgomery doesn’t believe that an exhibit should be something he’s ultra fond of all the time. Art doesn’t have to be beautiful to be art.

“It should be about an argument. A point being articulated,” Montgomery said. “Being asked to do  this was an opportunity and a responsibility to dig into an uninvestigated area of Denver’s’ early counterculture. Really, this exhibit focuses on where hip Denver started.”

But no man is an island.

“Really, this show would have been impossible without the help of Mike Storeim,” he said.

Storeim, who is owner and operator of classicposters.com, aided in the process as one of the largest private collectors and sellers of vintage poster art. Graciously offering up part of his collection for display for the event was a blessing, but there were a few extremely rare pieces that even Mike did not have.

Included in the exhibit is a long out of print and never before shown Bob Fried poster announcing the arrival of Stax Records legend and soul icon Otis Redding on December 22 and 23, 1967, sadly cancelled due to the singers death on December 10.

“There were a few printed up,” Montgomery said. “but I did not know where to begin to find one. But Mike, knowing everything and everyone, said that he may know a guy that has maybe the last two (known in existence). Mike made a last minute phone call or two, and it was overnight shipped to make it in time for the show.”

“There has always been an unfortunate bias against poster and graphical art. It’s easily reproducible, largely tied to advertising. And the highbrow art world has branded itself as almost a purer breed, above advertising.”

The exhibit itself revolves around Chet Helms and Family Dog, a San Francisco Bay Area promotions company comprised of players in the areas’ then burgeoning hippie counterculture movement.

Helms in particular has been heralded by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a towering figure in the 1960s Bay Area music scene.” Known by his free spirited and folksy image, Helms and the commune Family Dog at first booked and promoted concerts and “happenings” at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.

It was not uncommon at these happenings to see any number of psychedelic rock bands converging with other forms of experimental arts in a non linear, audience participatory friendly environment, all brought together with a free form light show improvised by the Diogenes Lantern Works, a troupe of light artists that reflected the aesthetic of 60’s counterculture through interactive light shows.

Later on in the sixties, the group focused their collective energy to try and “turn on” Denver. To do so, they commissioned a series of posters from visionary and groundbreaking Bay Area artists Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Dennis Nolan and others to promote a series of concerts held in and around the Denver area.

When asked about the artists featured in the exhibit, Montgomery relayed his elation that these artists, some now deceased, while others being well into their seventies and eighties, are now being recognized as important.

“There has always been an unfortunate bias against poster and graphical art. It’s easily reproducible, largely tied to advertising. And the highbrow art world has branded itself as almost a purer breed, above advertising,” he said.

“But seeing them (the poster artists) in a museum, or in a serious gallery context feels really good. They’ve always known that they were artists, but the art world has never really embraced them. They’ve been on peoples’ walls for decades and all over the world, but never in museums. Which is where they belong.”

Montgomery also sees the exhibit as a chance to showcase a unique aspect of the cultural shift in the history of not only Colorado music, but the tumultuous era that was the 1960s.

“I don’t think we should put on rose colored glasses or blinders. We are still grappling with so many of the same social issues today. The Vietnam War was a momentous shift in the American psyche. Also, in the 80s it also became  popular to disparage idealism, the pie-in-the-sky hippie ideology. Which has led to a very dark and cynical place. But however how naive it is, I would rather be naive about something positive than something negative.”

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