100 Posters, 134 Squirrels: A Decade of Hot Dogs, Large Mammals, and Independent Rock: The Handcraft

Through some sort of magical synchronicity, poster art has undergone a renaissance in the last 10 or so years. No longer stuck with ink-scrawled or cut-and-paste punk rock-style adverts (those these do still exist), the artistic merit of posters has reached a higher level. As compact discs dug a grave for album art — which probably reached its artistic zenith in the 1960s and 1970s — poster art replaced what visual creations were lost when the music industry switched to the crummy CD format.

What’s behind this re-birth? Regardless of the size of a city, a music community will always evolve, and depending on the type of music, a parallel visual art movement generally rises up alongside. Artists working in isolation, in small, medium, or large-sized cities — the artistic imperative will always propel the artist, regardless of acclaim. Thus, rock posters through the 1990s excelled in quality, and many renowned artists gained fame through this medium heavily influenced by the DIY aesthetic. (See gigposters.com for a more complete archive of poster artists.)

One of Chicago’s top-notch poster artists is Jay Ryan. Previous to seeing this book, I had only seen a few posters of his in music stores in the past. I clearly recall the arresting images and ideas behind his posters. Now, he has collected 100 stunning posters for this compilation of his handcrafted art, put out by Punk Planet and Akashic Books. Also included are short essays by Greg Kot, Art Chantry, Debra Parr, and Steve Albini, as well as a short interview with Ryan.

Ryan’s evolution as a poster artist is atypical, I think, of others of his kind. He started out as a painter, but after college grew doubtful of the validity of this pursuit. He is also a musician (playing in Dianagoh), and made some early, crude posters for his bands. After seeing the work of screen-printing artist Steve Walters, he then continued to design more posters, and hung around in his free time at Screwball Press, one of Chicago’s premier screen printers in the mid 1990s out of which Walters was working. This was how Ryan learned the screen-printing process. With his working knowledge of presses and his development of hand-drawn type, he was able to translate his unique visual interpretations into valid, valuable poster art. He also started his own printing press, Bird Machine.

Ryan’s work is colorful, inventive, and often very funny. He can take silly ideas — say, drawings of folding chairs, used to promote a Fugazi show — and through his sense of color and layout, the image will be imbued with a deeper meaning. He is equally adept at using a cute concept and image — a sleeping child about to be abducted by an alien craft — as he is with a more powerful political image, for example, and army tank flying a flag of an American dollar bill. He puts a squirrel in a wheelchair or situates a mobile tape recorder in a pale green field. At times, his juxtaposition of image and context approaches the poetic.

In this phase of his art, animals are also a reliable constant: squirrels, dogs, cows, fish, sheep, bunnies, and yaks all make appearances. But the posters here display his knack for taking drawn animals and placing them into funny, stupid, or meaningful places. Here is a yak lecturing to other animals; a dolphin rides a rocket; an armadillo rides a skateboard (advertising an event at Austin’s SXSW, of course).

And of course, there is his ability to draw, which is second to none. The translation from idea — whether the idea is suggested to him by a band, or by something of his own creation — to image appears seamless. Ryan’s work doesn’t scream at you the way a Frank Kozik piece does. His color scheme is generally quieter, and when he does use fiery reds, say, its effect becomes that much stronger.

But he will also draw people. A violinist stands still in a rowboat, playing over the currents of a violent sea; an astronaut swings a bat at floating hearts; a dude on the toilet reads Punk Planet’s 50th issue. Ryan is far from an abstract artist, and a lot of the fun of this book is flipping to a page and stopping to consider the poster printed there — its conception, execution, and what it suggests. Half the time, I laughed.

I guess the final thing to say about 100 Posters is that Jay Ryan’s decade of rock-postering has produced some superb and arresting work. But more importantly, a rock poster is meant as an advertisement. Not only do these works function unto themselves in a compilation book, but the strength of the images and the craft put into each poster ensured that they would be noticed in the various cities where they were displayed. And how many posters can you say that about? In Ryan’s work, ideas and creativity co-exist, but as significantly, you can see the time and date of the band’s being advertised. I cannot think of a better visual advertisement for underground rock: posters that are wild, articulate, and well made; posters with both a heart, and a brain.