The scene isn't very rock 'n' roll at first glance: A girl in a sweater and pleated skirt enjoys an autumn day. But look again and you'll notice her head isn't a normal girl-head, it's a crow's head. And full-bodied black birds near her feet are ca-cawing the date and time of a show at the Triple Rock. In the background, faded red foliage spells out something, I just can't figure out what.
The colors are rich and the concept striking, but what draws me into this particular poster is not knowing what the hell it's promoting. Eventually I decipher the cloudlike font ("Aviette and Islero"!) and admire the print's success at winning my prolonged attention. Too bad I probably wouldn't have seen it hanging anywhere before the gig.
David Witt says Squad19, the freelance design team that produced the poster, posts their work at coffee hangouts and record shops. "But posters have gotten so high profile now," he says in the Dinkytown Dunn Bros., "especially in this town, because there are so many good people doing it. They don't last long."
True enough, a kid who doesn't know the etiquette (Never take a poster for an event that hasn't happened yet) isn't going to pay $15 for a print at the show. He'll just filch it off a bulletin board a week earlier. Fortunately, those of us who missed such a poster's initial (albeit brief) street run can now see a comprehensive display of more than 50 prints at Creative Electric Studios called Optical Hot Dish.
In the utilitarian spirit of the medium--this stuff is advertising, after all--the exhibit grew out of the need for a few art students to earn extra credit and pick up a little extra cash. Steve Tenebrini, a former College of Visual Arts teacher who resembles a slim Jon Favreau, created the group in 2001 to offer his students freelance gigs and an advantage over the usual cookie-cutter art-school portfolios.
Tenebrini originally intended the name to have a Star Wars ring to it: "There were never 19 [members]; there were 15 at most," he jokes. But he eventually learned that Squad 19 is also police code for They are everywhere, an eerie coincidence for a part-time postering crew. The collective now screens at least a few concert posters every week, creates websites for other artists, designs all the covers for local music zine Rift, and brings designers together in a forum called S.P.A.M. (that's Sexy Poster Artists of Minnesota). Through the online network, other graphics teams like Aesthetic Apparatus and Burlesque Design of North America keep an organized calendar so that every upcoming concert gets inked by somebody.
At first Squad19 focused on more business-minded projects like creating websites and corporate identities. The crew moved from corporate work to rock posters when Tenebrini met Witt...through a flyer in the same Dunn Bros. we're in now. Witt turned Tenebrini on to the crack-for-graphic artists that is gigposters.com. ("I constantly tell people about it," says Witt, "but I warn them, 'Now, when you sign on, you're probably not going to sign off--ever.'") Soon, the pair were screen-printing in Tenebrini's basement.
Since then, all but one of the original students have left the group and other audiophile artists have joined in their stead. Tenebrini, who is 35, and his wife have had a baby, relegating his posters to quiet late-night silk-screening. "They're born in darkness," he says.
Since the collective now boasts six stylistically distinctive members who constantly trade and rework each other's designs, it's impossible to pin down a cohesive aesthetic. A single page of samples on their website reveals a snaggle-toothed creature--in the monster motif--stumping for blues rockers Modey Lemons. There's a touch of sacrilege with the gas-masked nun on a Pigface promotion. And let's not forget the sexy alien lying on a surfboard held by smaller aliens, each with a giant eyeball for a head. Apparently that means Los Straitjackets are coming to town.
The artists' respect for the classics earned them a space in the "Old School" chapter of Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion (Chronicle Books), an oversized compendium that could collapse your coffee table and that features nearly 500 pages of hot chicks, mutants, and psychedelic smoke swirls. The featured Squad19 poster promotes a Reverend Horton Heat show at Chicago's Metro, with a buxom she-devil lounging seductively in a martini glass. Frankly, it looks like pretty much every other Reverend Horton Heat poster ever made.
"Sometimes you have to do what's expected," says Witt. "If you're in a band, you want a somewhat familiar sound that will appeal to people. But then you also have to have your own style. Plus, a lot of bands have an already existing aesthetic."
"Skulls, boobs, and flames," says artist Adam Turman.
"Yeah," says Witt. "One of my favorites is High on Fire and they're very much about demons and hell. So you can't make a poster with a unicorn unless it's getting slaughtered by a giant flaming beast."
To my disappointment, this poster does not exist. But Optical Hot Dish does debut Squad19's bold first attempt at having every member work on a single poster. The result is a canvas overloaded with retro revelers, tangled spaghetti, and a nude siren with ivory skin and bloodred hair. The majority of the group also collaborated on the show's promo posters, enticing the audience with babes--one angelic and one evil, of course. These posters could get people excited about going to the gallery--but they probably won't.
"We put up a poster for the Optical Hot Dish show and it didn't last 12 hours. Someone took it," says Witt.
The quick-fingered music fan knows a collector's item when he sees it.