Painter, illustrator, muralist, husband, father: Jeff Soto is all these things. The two things that inspired him, as he reports: classic painting and street graffiti, two aspects of art that help, according to his website, “bridge the gap between pop surrealism and street art.” And where better to do that than, say, a poster for 311? Or Primus? Or Phish, or Pearl Jam?
Currently an Assistant Professor of Art at Riverside City College in California, Jeff Soto has an impressive career behind him. Sixteen solo exhibitions have ranged from New York to Nuremberg to Los Angeles. He’s lectured around the world: Berlin, Melbourne, San Francisco, Hawaii. The guy even has a Wikipedia page. His father was an offset printer, and growing up, creativity was encouraged in the young Jeff.
The 311 gig poster from a Houston show in 2016 brings that pop surrealism of 1960’s California—his home state—right into the modern time, but naturally, with the wry twist we’ve come to expect on our happily postmodern sensibility. Where we might expect that third eye on a woman’s forehead, or perhaps a dancing bear, here it’s featured…on a cat. All the iconography of the spiritual Sixties is there, but we’re in on the joke. Granted, that joke is rendered in a splash of colors, symbols, and that exquisitely and lovingly rendered pyramid with its dull-lidded eye. Quite the masterpiece. Or take this 2018 Oklahoma City poster for the great Primus.
Again, those eyes, this time on a death head’s moth (shades of Silence of the Lambs, no doubt), the moth itself placed on the kind of hand one expects on a palm readers advertisement, replete with weird esoteric symbols on the fingers. And it may take a moment, as it took me, to notice that there are seven fingers on this hand! A potted cactus, a pink skull, a marvelously alert snail, and a buffalo that seems more like a chia pet than one of the most iconic American beasts. Dense, colorful, rich in associations, this is everything fine art aims for.
Now, look at this poster a while: Pearl Jam, 2014. Its secret is not readily apparent but hinted at in the obvious mirror image. Looking from this perspective, the cat is readily apparent. But now flip the image—and this poster encourages you to do just that—and see the owl instead. Choose your orientation! It’s two posters in one.
By the time we arrive at the Phish poster from 2013. Soto’s tropes are evident: the eyes, the third eye, the wings, the cat (at least, I think it’s a cat), and certainly the symmetry of it. And the colors, though here they are actually quite limited, actually give an otherworldly glow and make it seem denser and richer, more colorful that is, than it appears. This one is certainly a wink at the classic 1960’s poster, what with that beaded headband on the, what, earth goddess? Not to mention the wonderful addition of the tent on the shore, seeing that Phish fans are certified campers. In my experience, at any rate.
Check out Jeff Soto’s website and consider picking up a poster or two. And you’ll notice that many of his posters actually come in numerous versions, each of wildly different colors.