The Rock Poster Art of Chuck Sperry

The radiant rock art illustrator exhibits his luscious silkscreen prints in a 17th-century church in the tiny coastal village of Tellaro, Italy. Ben Marks reports.

The Chuck Sperry woman is a beguiling muse with a Medusa-like mane, her gaze sailing past the fingertips pressing her star-dappled cheek, the ripe pomegranate resting in her uplifted hand, past anyone gullible enough to return her unblinking stare.

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Gogol Bordello, Paradiso Amsterdam, 11/6-8/13, 15.75 x 33.5 inches, 5 colors on gold metallic paper

No, that’s not right. The Sperry babe is a beautiful badass who stands straight and tall, her fiery eyes burning a hole through some unseen point in the distance, an ammo belt draped Zapata-style over her Edwardian-patterned keffiyeh.

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Widespread Panic, Spring Tour 2013, 20.75 x 35 inches, 7 colors on green speckled paper

Nope. The quintessential Chuck Sperry girl is an innocent flower child, whose hair literally drips with blossoms, as if the eye-fry inks the artist has screened onto his sheets of gold metallic and cream-colored paper were so thick, gravity has forced them south.

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Exterior of Oratorio di Santa Maria in Selaa, Tellaro, Italy

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Installation view, “The Flowers of Popular Victories” by Chuck Sperry at the Oratorio di Santa Maria in Selaa, Tellaro, Italy

This past summer, a convent’s worth of Sperry’s modern-day Madonnas spent a week in a deconsecrated, 17th-century church in the tiny coastal village of Tellaro, Italy, flaunting their psychedelic sexuality and almost sacrilegious poise for all of heaven to see. In case you missed that multimedia event, which featured Sperry’s art inside the old church and a San Francisco light show on the building’s historic façade, you can catch an exhibition of Sperry’s recent screenprints, including gig posters for bands like Widespread Panic, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Pearl Jam, and The Black Keys, at L’Oeil Ouvert gallery in Paris, through January 1, 2014. And just this month, also in Paris, a restaurant called Blue Valentine opened with a Sperry-painted mural on its ceiling.

Officially, Sperry is a resident of San Francisco, while his screenprinting studio, Hangar 18, where he mans the same semi-automatic clamshell press Frank Kozik used in the mid-1990s, is in Oakland. But Italy has been a home away from home since 2006, when the artist spent a year living and working in Milan.

“I was invited to build a print shop at Centro Sociale Leoncavallo, where I had shown some of my posters in 2001 at their annual Happening International Underground,” Sperry says. “It’s a big convention of comics, fine art, and graffiti art, a lot like a Rock Poster Society show except not just focused on rock art. The year after that, I helped them organize more people from San Francisco, including Ron Turner from Last Gasp and Spain Rodriguez. Jello Biafra did spoken word, and we got some of the ‘World War 3 Illustrated’ guys, Peter Kuper, Seth Tobocman, and Mac McGill, from New York City, to come. So we formed a good friendship over that and eventually they offered me a hundred square meters in a sort of side room within this giant building. The print shop is still running today.”

During his year in Milan, Sperry took numerous day trips to Pietrosanta, which is just down the coast from Tellaro, where he produced last summer’s “The Flowers of Popular Victories,” the deliberately ambiguous name he gave to his project in and outside of the community’s former church.

“It has dash of flower power to it,” he says of the phrase, “but it also sounds like a political message from the 1940s. I wanted to leave that impression. Besides,” he adds, “it sounded good in Italian.”

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“The Flowers of Popular Victories” by Chuck Sperry at the Oratorio di Santa Maria in Selaa, Tellaro, Italy – Light Painting by Bill Ham

Each summer for the past six years, Sperry has lived for varying lengths of time in Tellaro, so he knew who to talk to about getting permission to use the church (local Riccardo Azzarini greased the wheels) and where to hold the after-party (shout out to the Red Fish Café). Franz Treichler of The Young Gods, who’s known Sperry for 25 years, agreed to compose a soundscape to accompany a light show, which was supplied by the great Bill Ham, who is probably best known for the ocular orgies he created for most of the early Avalon Ballroom dance concerts in the 1960s.

“It was the biggest, most involved show I have ever put on,” says Sperry, who was particularly concerned about getting the light show right. “Bill is a big hero of mine, so finding a top-of-the-line, concert-grade projector for his art in the middle of rural, coastal Italy was a challenge. Tellaro is literally at the end of the road.”

Inside, Sperry filled the old building with his women, which he saw as a way “to reintroduce the female principle into a church setting, where it'd been sadly lacking for thousands of years. I basically hung my large-format silkscreen pieces inside the church, chapel-style.”

Above the spot where the altar once stood, Sperry positioned a print called “Thalia,” whose central image was originally designed for Eddie Vedder before being remade as a poster for Widespread Panic’s spring 2013 tour (the same woman was featured yet again, though in a different pose, for the band’s November, 16, 2013, concert at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York). “The altar piece that I put in there was somewhat Christ-like in that it's a female figure with her arms stretched out. Her head is thrown back and she's just dripping in flowers. Her arms are cropped just past the shoulders, so you're not sure where the hands are going, but it does look very much like a cruciform. And it's very obviously nature-driven, so it's a bit of a pagan image for a church.”

Weirdly, the frame for his rock-and-roll goddess was already there. “At some point, someone had snuck in and cut out what I presume was a religious painting above the altar. It was razored right out, but the frame had probably been there for hundreds of years. I put “Thalia” inside that frame. We turned down the lights and had 50 to 100 candles in there. It looked really moody and chapel-like.”

Though no stranger to irreverence, Sperry admits he was a tad nervous about the reception he’d get once the show opened. “Here's this 500-year-old church,” he says, “and I’m putting these pagan-influenced nudes inside it. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I'm in a heap of trouble.’ On the first night it was mostly friends, but also people from town I’d been passing on the street during the previous six years. I was worried that maybe they were really conservative and wouldn't like what I’d done to their church. But almost unanimously, people understood right away what I was trying to do.”

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“Thalia,” from “The Flowers of Popular Victories” by Chuck Sperry at the Oratorio di Santa Maria in Selaa, Tellaro, Italy

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“Worlds Within,” from “The Flowers of Popular Victories” by Chuck Sperry at the Oratorio di Santa Maria in Selaa, Tellaro, Italy

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“Omega,” from “The Flowers of Popular Victories” by Chuck Sperry at the Oratorio di Santa Maria in Selaa, Tellaro, Italy

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“Mind Spring,” from “The Flowers of Popular Victories” by Chuck Sperry at the Oratorio di Santa Maria in Selaa, Tellaro, Italy

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Installation view, “The Flowers of Popular Victories” by Chuck Sperry at the Oratorio di Santa Maria in Selaa, Tellaro, Italy

For Sperry, the goal was not only to bring goddesses back into a male-dominated arena, but also to get away from what he calls “transactional” cultural events. “In the past three years, I've done a lot of art shows at galleries, and they've been really great and a lot of fun. But the church project went beyond business as usual, where you’re doing something because it seems like the right career move or an economically good idea.”

Lately, Sperry has found South America to be a similarly commerce-neutral destination, a place where the price of his latest Widespread Panic print on eBay is not the first, second, and third thing people want to talk about. His entrée into the art-and-design scene there was a young, up-and-coming Buenos Aires printmaker named Santiago Pozzi, who runs his own print shop, Imprenta Chimango.

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Trimarchi Design Conference, 2012. View from the stage

“Santi initially contacted me to be an intern,” Sperry recalls. “He worked with me for two or three months in 2012, and at the end of his internship, he was like, ‘Chuck, dude, I don't know how to thank you,’ and I said, ‘If you can go back and get me a show in Argentina, that'll be plenty of thanks.’ Three or four months later, out of the blue he calls and says, ‘Okay, we've invited you to this big design conference called the Trimarchi.’ Turns out it's one of the biggest design conferences in the Spanish-speaking world. It was like one of those TED Talks, except in a basketball-stadium sized room with a three-story-tall Jumbotron behind you. There were like 4,500 people in the audience. I did a PowerPoint, and every time I changed the image, people would applaud. Sometimes you’d get a standing ovation. It was just off the hook.”

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View across conference venue

The experience affirmed Sperry’s belief that these days, when it comes to art and design, borders don’t really matter. “Borders mean inconvenience at the airport, but people are people. It's a global scene. The bands I do my rock posters for are also touring down in South America. They show up in Paris, they play in Italy. Basically, it's the way the world works now.”

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Pearl Jam, Buenos Aires, by Chuck Sperry and Santi Pozzi, 22 x 29 inches, 4 colors on archival cream paper

Sperry’s recent collaboration with Pozzi on a Pearl Jam poster for a 2013 concert in Buenos Aires is a good example of this cross-cultural, cross-continental approach. “Santi is a student of the 1960s, the psychedelic art of Wes Wilson and Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, Rick Griffin, Gary Grimshaw, David Singer, and Lee Conklin. And yet he's very conscious about being from Argentina. So he takes Argentine design motifs, the local styles, and psychedelicizes them.”

For the Pearl Jam poster, Sperry and Pozzi teamed up to make a statement about the monoculture of genetically modified crops that has transformed Argentine agriculture, displacing countless small farmers in the process. “Santi came up with this idea of Gauchito Gil, who's a folk hero in Argentina. That became the central figure in the poster.” Sperry supplied Gil’s nemesis, a mutant, one-eyed, soybean monster, representing the dominant cash crop Monsanto has profitably imposed on Argentina’s breadbasket, the Pampas.

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“Cosmos,” 2012, 22 x 33 inches, 7 color silkscreen

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“Mind Spring,” 2012, 22 x 28 inches, 6 color silkscreen

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“Alpha,” 2012, 23 x 35 inches, 6 colors on archival cream paper

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“Omega,” 2012, 23 x 35 inches, 6 colors on archival cream paper

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“Victory,” 2013, 22 x 33 inches, 7 color screenprint with gold and silver metallics and 2 glazes on archival cream paper

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Widespread Panic, The Theater at Madison Square Garden, NYC, 11/16/13, 20.75 x 35 inches, 7 colors on archival cream paper

Another church (the Pampas), another pagan image (Gauchito Gil): In the Pearl Jam poster, the symbolism is direct, the struggle clear. More ambiguous is the composition Sperry created for a recent Gogol Bordello gig at Paradiso in Amsterdam. Wearing the aforementioned ammo belt described above, the female figure in this propaganda poster disguised as a rock-concert collectible was inspired by the women who ran Centro Sociale Leoncavallo back in Milan when Sperry lived there. Known as Mamme Antifasciste, or Antifascist Mammas, these women, Sperry says in a recent post, “reached out to women and mothers throughout the world to participate in struggles in Chiapas, in Argentina, in Palestine, and locally in Italy.”

While it’s not explicitly stated what the woman in the Gogol Bordello poster is fighting for, her keffiyeh is probably a clue. Still, ambiguous target or not, you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that deceptively impassive stare.

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Widespread Panic at the Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado, December 30 & 31, 2010, 22 x 33 inches, Edition of 625, 7 color silkscreen

Published 5:30 am Wed, May 14, 2014

About the Author

Ben Marks is the senior editor of CollectorsWeekly.com

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