photo by Marty Caivano

The art of noise                         back
Concert posters make a comeback

by Matt Sebastian
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His shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, Jeff Holland grabs the squeegee and gives it a quick pull toward his torso.

"I don't even know for sure what this is going to look like," Holland says, a slight grin flashing through his bushy, graying beard.

Pushing the squeegee back away from his body, Holland presses another thin film of fluorescent green paint through a mesh screen.

"But that's part of the fun," he says, pausing. "Actually, it all of the fun."

Stashing the rubber blade on top of an array of splattered paint cans, Holland flips up the hinged wooden frame that's holding the screen in place on his crowded workbench. He gingerly peels off the white poster that's adhered itself to the mesh's underside.

Holland's smile grows wider as he holds up the sheet of heavy paper. Etched in two different shades of green is the outline of an intricately detailed 2005 calendar Holland plans to take to Flatstock VI, a gathering of concert-poster artists next March in Austin, Texas. To complete the image, Holland just needs to add a third color - either black or another strain of green; he hasn't decided yet.

"Oh yeah, it's going to be cool," Holland says, a hint of surprise audible in his voice as he examines the overlaid, contrasting greens. 'This is usually where everything either comes together or falls apart. But I think this one's gonna come out just fine.

Revitalized art

Working out of a rustic barn off South Boulder Road, Holland, 48, is part of a new generation of rock 'n' roll poster artists who, over the past 15 years, have used turn-of-the-century screen-printing techniques to revitalize the art of handmade concert flyers. Mixing flashy colors with images both wildly surreal and coolly abstract, these designers churn out eye-popping gig posters that pass as both art and advertising, on-the-fringe creations that are just as likely to wind up tacked to telephone poles as framed and hung on walls.

"Take the bands' names off, and they're art prints," says Jay Vollmar, 33, a Denver-based poster designer.

Now, scores of these contemporary artists including Holland, Vollmar and Denver's Lindsey Kuhn are being celebrated in the just published "Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion," a gorgeous coffee table book filled with savagely inventive prints, posters heralding concerts by everyone from the Flaming lips and 311 to Madonna, Wilco and Phish.

The 500-page tome comes as modern poster makers' profiles are higher than ever, thanks to the twice-annual Flatstock conventions and the surging popularity of, a 3-year-old Web gallery that features more than 35,000 posters from around the world.

"We're seeing a populist revolution in poster-making right now that's as equally valid as any time that came before it," says Paul Grushkin, co-editor of "Art of Modern Rock" and Grushkin, who sorted through 8,000 submissions for his book, credits the resurgence of screen printed gig posters, in large part, on the ubiquity of design software such as Adobe Photoshop, which offers endless possibilities to twist, morph and mash up images and sketches. Technology also has made it easier to create the screens themselves, using a process akin to developing photos.

But Grushkin also points to something more ephemeral: the loss of album art. Whereas artists once had a square foot of cardboard to work with, the switch to CDs shrunk that space drastically, and the popularity of digital music files threatens to abolish it altogether.

"Kids today, in their teens or at college, who're turning on to the most important music of their lives, might just be getting that from MP3 files floating in thin air," Grushkin says. "But the human condition says let there be art.' So these kids who are ravenous for new music are also being compelled to produce pieces of art about those same bands that are changing their world."

At the same time, concert posters are among the most disposable forms of art, often beautiful creations that, by their very nature, are supposed to be taped up in windows, hung up on spray-painted walls, left out in the elements. They're ads, after all.

"It's kind of strange," Vollmar admits, "because this is limited-edition, hand-made printmaking, but then you devalue it by giving the posters away. But I really love seeing my posters up on telephone poles. They should be tacked up on walls."

For club owners, commissioning a handmade poster impresses both attendees-who rip them off the walls after shows or swipe them from spots around town-and the bands, signifying to all that there's something special about this particular gig.

When the legendary Fillmore was reborn in San Francisco in the early '90's, the venue reintroduced the historic practice of handing out custom designed posters to every fan as they left a concert. Denver's Fillmore does that sporadically, and smaller venue operators such as Scott Campbell, owner of Denver's Larimer Lounge, have found that poster handouts bring hard-core fans to their clubs.

"It just helps add a unique aspect to the show," says Campbell, who regularly commissions posters by Kuhn, Holland and Vollmar. "For the fans, it's a lasting symbol of the show, and it keeps them coming back. And the bands, they absolutely love them. When they come into the club, the first thing they see are these beautiful posters hanging up inside.

"It's like, 'Whoa, that's cool.' "

A new age

Although they date back to the early days of rock 'n' roll, concert posters are most associated with the psychedelic era of the '60s, when artists such as Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley and Rick Griffin were offering up trippy images and flower-powered graphics to promote shows by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and other San Francisco-based acts.

The art form flourished through the '70's, Grushkin says, but hit a brick wall with the arrivial of punk at decade's end. The minimalist, do-it-your-self ethos of punk acts and their new wave siblings translated to Xeroxed flyers written by hand or with letters cut out of magazines.

By the early '90s, though, artists began exploring the medium of concert posters once again, most notably in Austin. There Kozik and his apprentice Kuhn, a skater who'd been screen-printing T-shirts in Mississippi, developed electrifying, bold posters to promote local gigs.

Helping cultivate the idea that these posters were art as well as advertising, the designers would hand print small, limited-edition runs of 50 to 100 sheets, signing and numbering each one - a tradition of the psychedelic era that most current artists continue to uphold.

"When I started out there were only a couple of us doing it," says Kuhn, 36, who relocated to Denver in 1998 and now supports himself and a staff of four others by designing rock posters and skateboard decks out of a Lower Downtown warehouse.

The posters coming out of Austin in the early '90s mirrored the alt rock revolution - featuring cartoonish women and animals rendered in bright, vivid colors - and chronicled visits by bands such as Helmet, the Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails and the Butthole Surfers.

In Colorado, Holland and Vollmar were inspired by this second wave of poster art.

Holland, who works for the city of Boulder mapping open space, had been dabbling in silk-screenart since the early '80s, blowing up images on Xerox machines and making his own abstract prints. Having learned how to screen. T-shirts in a junior high art class, Holland also worked the parking lots at Folsom Field rock shows, selling custom-designed bootleg shirts.

"Music has always been the deal for me," says Holland, who also co-hosts Radio 1190's alt-country show, "Route 78 West."

In early 1994, British shoe-gazer outfit Swervedriver was slated to headline the Fox Theatre, and Holland - turned on by those far-out designs emanating from Austin - asked the club's operators if he could make a poster advancing the show. They said yes to that poster and dozens more, setting Holland up-with free tickets and a bar tab through much of the '90s.

"I've basically taken it upon myself to educate," says Holland, who lately has been designing posters for the Boulder Theater and the Larimer Lounge, since the Fox now spends most of its promotion money on newspaper ads. "I only do posters for the bands that I think have merit, and that I think more people should check out."

Artistically, Holland utilitizes a lot of Americana in his work, playing with images of cars and the old West; he also uses Native American imagery and symbols, something that fits with the mystery-filled name he's given his line of posters: Cryptographics.

"I try to tell stories with this stuff," Holland says. "I think this has become the new folk art. The silkscreen medium has become the way to prove your artistic talent, to get your work out there a lot faster than getting it into some gallery."

Vollmar, who works as Westword's art director, got into the game in the late '90s after all of his friends began playing in bands. Realizing he had no musical talent, the artist decided he could still be involved with the scene on a different level.

"I've always had this strange need to be making crap," Vollmar, whose posters often are more conceptually abstract, says while screen-printing stacks of promotional postcards in his sparse basement workspace, which also doubles as his laundry room.

For Vollmar, the joy of poster-making lies with coming up with fresh designs, which he first sketches out by hand, then scans into his computer. Once on his hard drive, poster designs can take on a whole new life, Vollmar says, as he tweaks images with Photoshop or incorporates photos and other found images, such as the Old Testament font he lifted from a Biblical passage for a recent High on Fire poster.

Once the designs are done, they're printed out on transparencies, once for each layer of color. Using a process called photo emulsion, the images are then transferred onto light-sensitive screens, which then are used for printing - a process Vollmar calls "pushing ink around."

"You've got to check out the band first," he says of his creative process. "You don't want to force your idea of a cool poster onto a band. You've got to match the vibe of the show, capture some kind of feeling."

There's not a lot of money involved for artists who don't share the stature or business acumen of Kuhn, Vollmar notes. He and Holland, who are planning a joint exhibition in Boulder next spring, each say that designing and printing gig posters is purely passion, not a job.

"I guess if I were an old lady, this would be my knitting," Vollmar says.

December 17, 2004 Boulder Camera