Postmodernism, Surrealism, and the Gig Poster

by Sean Hill
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© Jeff Lance

In 1869, a year before he died, the Uruguayan-born French poet, Comte de Lautréamont, published a phrase in a book of poems that would become famous when discovered by André Breton: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Well, what in the world constitutes that kind of beautiful? This gig poster for Dinosaur Jr., that’s what.

Jeff Lance’s 2009 show poster for the iconic band is a perfect case in point for the influence of Surrealism, as Breton termed it, on our current cultural milieu, certainly, and undoubtedly on the creation of the gig poster. The “chance encounter” on gig posters is frequent; by combining symbols from entirely disparate sources, something utterly new is created.

Here we have the black and white cartoon characters so familiar to us from early Disney cartoons, as well as those of Betty Boop. But here the singular reference ends, and another begins: the two characters furthest right are playing on what we imagine as the Appalachian instruments, the banjo, the washtub bass. But the figure on the left is eerily different, drumming with femurs on a number of skulls. On closer inspection, other odd elements creep in—the cigarette, the lizard tail, and, behind it all, the stark woods.

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© Angryblue

In similar cartoon fashion, there’s this unsettling image by Justin Kamerer’s Angryblue studio for a 2011 Melvins show in Seattle. The images, which make themselves immediately apparent, are actual Disney characters, but they are made completely menacing. The witch from Sleeping Beauty is obviously evil enough, but Thumper? With a knife? The zombielike Jiminy Cricket? And what’s with that apparently wounded Bambi?

It’s a nightmarish scene made even more surreal by the use of the color. The huge array of bright color softens the blow, makes it ironic. Finally, the whole conceit is in the form of an invitation: “Join us on May 14th”; “An Evening with the Melvins.” At least three tropes, altered to be disturbing and fit the mood of a band like the Melvins, make for a rather unforgettable image.

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© Erin O’Connor

But a poster by no means needs to be outrageous to exemplify the “chance encounter.” Erin O’Connor’s low-key poster for folk duo The Swell Season makes use of two simple symbols—piano keys and birds—to make the suggestion of the flight music takes us on. And what is happening in the image, in the narrative, is a transformation, as one might experience in a dream (and Surrealism was completely linked to dreams, as with Salvador Dali) heightened by the simple colors of black and white changing to black and white birds, which means the colors, too, like the Melvins poster, is significant, charged with meaning, but in an entirely different way.

For a final example of surrealism in the postmodern gig poster, consider Justin Hampton’s 2009 Seattle poster for The Black Crowes. For one, we have to identify the figure here, whose pose, clothing, and the guitar show him to be blues musician Robert Johnson, a clear heir to the music of The Black Crowes, as well as another of the band’s predecessors, The Rolling Stones. The demonic wings point to the story often associated with Johnson, the old “sold his soul to the devil” tale; hence, the hellish scene about him. But note, too, the burning halo.

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© Justin Hampton

There is yet another reference, perhaps arguable, but palatable: the legs of this guitarist seem to point to the most recognizable rendition of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft’s monstrous creation. That horror is offset, though, by the roses and lettering which points to the Summer of Love and, most notably, the Grateful Dead; the inclusion of those flowers and that type indicates not only the band and the era but, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the very origin of gig posters themselves.

Postmodernism, as an art theory, informed as it is by Surrealism, creates a foundation under gig posters that may be summarized as thus: new meaning is created in the mixed salad of old meanings, juxtaposed to humorous or menacing effect. Under the aesthetic of postmodernism, what one could do with the gig poster is thus, by definition, an endless array of possibilities.

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