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Visuals: A Mind-Blown, Chaplinesque Mouse

Artist Rick Griffin draws cartoon-inspired posters for Jimi Hendrix, Quicksilver

Rick Griffin, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, Albert King, concert poster

Rick Griffin's concert poster for Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, and Albert King. Circa 1970.

Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty

There are any number of bright ways you could begin an account of Rick Griffin, but the important thing is that a sketch artist who not much more than a year ago was admiringly collecting work by the Big Four dance-poster artists has since made this the Big Five. His work is the most accomplished and turned-on of the lot.

Griffin is a soft-spoken, humble guy in his mid-twenties who still has some of the clean-cut, outdoor look of an L.A. surfer, under a mane of flowing sandy hair and a full, flaring beard. He lives with his artist-wife, Ida, and their year-and-a-half-old daughter in the basement of an old frame house that backs up to the bare, grassy summit of San Francisco’s Bernal Heights. The furnishings are simple and tasteful, the walls are painted in bright colors and there are posters everywhere, mostly Griffin’s own work and old circus posters. Between the two there is a clear line of continuity. Griffin, probably more than anyone else now going, carries forward the great native American graphic art tradition of late 19th-century advertising and early 20th-century cartoons. He carries it to a logical culmination as a self-conscious tool to express archetypal symbols and a Bosch-like, psychedelic surrealism.

Griffin spent all of a year attending art school, the Chouinard Institute in Los Angeles, after going through high school and dropping out of junior college. He feels the only value of this period was having met his wife, who was also an art student there. But already Griffin was a cartoonist, strongly into the surfing scene. He began drawing for Surfer magazine when he was 16 years old.

“They didn’t take my work seriously, so I couldn’t take them seriously,” he says of the art school syndrome. “I learned none of the things that are in my posters from art school. Basic techniques, things like lighting, I learned in high school.”

The main influence of Griffin’s graphic style are, he feels, obvious in all his work. The major one is cartoonists of the 40’s and early 50’s, “people who were drawing when I was growing up. Certain cartoonists have blown my mind as much as anyone in art history.” Griffin specifically mentions Jack Davis and among current cartoonists R. Crumb.

The 19th-century flavor of Griffin’s work is more the result of an influence in “attitude, rather than specific pieces,” he said, the attitudes of painstakingness and anonymity. “They were not concerned with anything other than doing it.”

A more direct inspiration has been the work of his wife. She still draws, and has even produced a poster, but Griffin says her “studio” and her “thing” is the household kitchen. On a wall above a montage of hanging pots and pans runs a long shelf carrying a row of baking powder cartons, olive oil tins and all the other containers whose labels are filled with scrolls, ornate lettering and symbols in the great pop graphic style, old and new. Like the circus posters, they form a direct link with Griffin’s work that hangs alongside.

Griffin also admires the work of the Austrian surrealist, Ernest Fuchs, and lastly, there has been the inspiration of the other, earlier poster artists, Kelley, Mouse, Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson.

After leaving art school, Griffin spent six months in the L.A. area “hustling all kinds of cartoon jobs — –they were low caliber stuff, with no gratification.” Giving up on this, he traveled around through California and Mexico, “spending all my time drawing in sketch books.” His “sketchbooks,” though, are a far cry from the customary little line illustrations of Gold Rush towns or San Miguel Allende. The pages are filled with drawings in a tight, hard line that flows with incredible intricacy to form root-like tangles and hatchings, sometimes within larger organic forms that are part surrealism, part pop and all symbol, other times a whole page with lush foliage and twigs that suggest the way an insect might see his surroundings, the kind of landscape that later formed the environment for Griffin’s poster of the peyote-eating Indian.

Griffin entered the poster-making scene quite by accident. He had watched the scene and collected, but “I though Wilson and Moscoso had the field covered.” His own first poster was for an art exhibition by a family friend. When he took it to the printer, he ran into Gabe Katz, who asked him to do some pages for the Oracle.

Griffin has produced 40 posters in not much longer than a year’s time, and his evolution has been rapid and remarkable. “When I first started, I knew nothing but black and white reproduction,” he said. “I learned an incredible amount from the printer, who has been greatly responsible for the whole technological development in posters.”

Griffin’s early black-and-white jobs retain the hard, intricate, 19th-century engraver’s precisionism of his earlier sketchbook drawings –— “I was still learning the tools” — –although this by no means suggests that their message wasn’t coming through strong; his “Indian,” one of the finest, resembles somewhat the famous “Blind Botanist” of Ben Shahn, mind-blown instead of blinded, but at last having learned to live at one with his surroundings.

When color came into Griffin’s work, it did so with a bright, flat richness that is not so much contemporary op or pop as an intensification of the popular tradition of 50 or 100 years ago. His images, though, were quite foreign to any period of advertising art, at least so far, consisting largely of hashish pipes, grass and pot plants, finely rendered in all their natural beauty: powerful symbols of fertility, of the earth, of naturalness.

In his most recent posters, Griffin has discovered the power of blue sky, not done in any literal way, but as the surrealists used it: flat, strongly lighted areas behind images which are part landscape, part biological, but add up to a sum that is on another level than its parts. The whole effect is graphically simpler; the images are more “cartoonlike,” but they also seem to unfold and combine more freely out of unconscious processes. Major examples are the posters for the Quicksilver and Jimi Hendrix, Griffin’s two favorites.

Griffin prefers working under pressure of a deadline, which is to say relatively fast. He thinks of his work as a revival of the spirit of 19th century engraving art, but with modern methods. “My head changes too fast to spend months working on something.”

Griffin has produced a few independent posters, but he prefers dance posters and feels that his work has a deep and definite relationship to the music of the particular group it is designed for. “The first thing I always ask is who the group is,” he said. “If it’s not a group I dig or am familiar with, I don’t do it. I try to get into the group’s attitude. The better the group, the better the poster is.”

“It may be an advertising medium, but I don’t mind fronting the music,” he added. “The music is the source, it’s music that keeps the whole thing going.”

Griffin has also done a few album covers, his best so far a new one for the Quicksilver, and he hopes to get deeper into this field.

He is, justifiably, down on the financial aspects of the San Francisco dance poster scene. Local promoters have been paying $100 per piece, a piddling sum for a week or two of involvements, including all the runs to the printer, and it’s a miserly amount whether you consider the posters art or advertising. “If you turn it down, they just get someone else to do it,” Griffin said. “If you asked for more, they’d turn every Tom, Dick and Harry loose.”

There are royalties, but “the sales part is pretty well over,” Griffin added. “The last royalty check was very small, and there will probably be no next one. But doing the posters is more important than the money. The Great Poster Trip is dead, but I’ll continue to do dance posters, and this is all I care about.”

Recently, he has turned out a lot of “small, quick drawings” in a surrealist comic style, centering on a Mickey Mouse figure who prevails in a mindblown version of Chaplinesque innocence against cartoon symbols of conformity, repression and armed warfare that beset him from all sides; designed as a sequence to be rapidly looked at, they have the quality of a disjointed, collage-film. They restore to the medium the kind of universal meaning that pretty well disappeared from cartooning with the death of Krazy Kat.

This is really the key to the content of Griffin’s work. “I just put into it what’s in my head at the time. Depending on how universal it is, the more people relate to it. The symbols I use are simply things I’ve been confronted with in my own experience; I find they’ve always been coming through to everybody. When enough people experience the same thing, then the world is going to change.”

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