Punks On Paper
Vitriolic poster show cramps DIVA’s space
BY CHUCK ADAMS
Back before Helvetica, vector graphics and Adobe Creative Suite came to rule my life, the materials to make a decent 8 1/2″ x 11″ flyer were simple: fat markers, scissors, paper and glue sticks. This was how I made posters to promote my high school French Club’s somewhat kooky fundraising schemes. They were stark and bold and always humanly plagued with errors. Then came Photoshop. The high school theater department wanted me to design the poster for Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor. With a myriad of drop-shadowed typefaces and rigid left-justified arrangements, I crafted an elegant piece of shit. It was not very punk rock of me.
Fast forward 10 years and now I’m looking at an exhibit at the DIVA gallery reminding me what potential is to be had with simple materials and a Xerox machine. “The Secret History of Punk Rock: Visual Vitriol” collects hundreds of punk rock posters from the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s into a massive mash-up of eras, regions, genders and sexual orientations. One panel groups “Local” punk rock posters, another groups “English” bands and artists, while “Gay and Lesbian” makes another grouping.
When I talk with curator and UO folklore grad student David Ensminger as he’s hanging the show a week before it’s opening, he doesn’t hide his passion for punk rock nor his admiration for the people who, with a little elbow grease and some rudimentary design skills, created the monotone posters promoting punk’s endless string of live shows in basements and coffeehouses and dive bars — people like Randy “Biscuit” Turner, an out gay during the “intolerance” of the hardcore punk period. “He never used a typewriter or a computer,” Ensminger says. “His thing was all hand-drawn, cut-and-paste, collage. Didn’t bother with typesetting. It’s very vivid.” Turner died in 2005, making the “Gay and Lesbian” panel a mini-retrospective of a 25-year period of his poster output.
Ensminger likes to discuss the “contested space” that punk rock poster artists (or any subculture) have had to deal with when confronted by the authorities, some even more menacing than one’s parents, and rightfully concludes that skater culture had a natural “synergy” with the punk rock scene. “Skaters take an unused space and make something from it — ‘I can do tricks there, I can do jumps there, I can do rail slides in that space,'” Ensminger says, “whereas a punk artist would look at a space and say, ‘Well, I can put my posters there, I can graffiti that space or I can turn that space into something.'”
Ensminger sure has turned DIVA’s main exhibit hall into something, brilliantly plastering his collection (a large portion of which was donated by Turner and Jeff Nelson of Minor Threat and Dischord records) onto the walls of the gallery en masse, as you’d see on an unregulated bulletin board in a city. The works you’ll see in this show are themselves photocopies of the originals (ostensibly to preserve the fragile nature of the ephemera), which, for some reason, doesn’t make much sense when the entire point of a climate-controlled gallery is to preserve the art while also displaying it. Purists seeking sun-damaged, urine-stained posters: You have been warned.
But back to my piece of shit Photoshop poster for the high school play. It was bad because I had not mastered the skills. I was still exploring, trying to be flashy and slick. Some of the posters in this show are in the flashy and slick phase, trying so hard that the message becomes cluttered with, well, visual vitriol. But the mastery of the concert poster is not the intent of this show. Go see this show for its folklore, for its snapshot of an era — for its love of the fat marker, scissors and glue sticks.
“The Secret History of Punk Rock: Visual Vitriol” shows through March 30. A panel discussion on punk as a historical DIY subculture, along with a screening of Chronicles from the Zero Hour: The Punk Legacy, Ensminger’s documentary on the punk legacy, is at 7 pm Saturday, March 8, at DIVA,110 W. Broadway.