Vol. 2, Issue #21 November 9th - November 22nd, 2007

Tiger Bear From Hell at NONzine.com

By: Wilhelm Murg

Painting Psychedelic Music

The late Rick Griffin (1944-1991) was one of the big five San Francisco poster artists who defined the concept of psychedelic art in the late 1960s. He went on to become one of the major figures in underground comix in his own right, and also as one of R. Crumb’s collaborators in the “Zap Comix“ series. Griffin died just before the movements he helped to create were recognized as major art events, but a new book on his work, “Heart and Torch: Rick Griffin’s Transcendence” by Doug Harvey (Gingko Press,) released in collaboration with an exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum, rectifies those years of relative obscurity.

I first came across Griffin’s work when I was a teenager haunting all the area head shops, gathering up the early runs of underground comix in those last fleeting heydays that were still informed by the 1960s, and it was obvious, even then, that he was a visionary. While many artists attempted convey their psychedelic experiences with pen and ink, Griffin succeeded in spades. The character he had used since his early days as a young artist drawing in “Surf Magazine,” “Murph the Surf,” had been transformed into a heroic, Kachina-headed figure in 3-D who rode on waves where the tubes held the eyes of god. His comic strips were conventional only in the sense that they appeared in panels - and often overflowed their boundaries - but they were surreal, non-sequential images with characters talking in a broken, ancient, faux-Hebrew. As in the paintings of William Blake, Griffin used his own imagery and personal iconography to convey the awesome and divine, often mixing Carlos Castaneda’s mystic desert with Daliesque absurdities and gunslingers from Sergio Leone’s existential spaghetti westerns (such as the strip “Omo Bob Rides South” in “Zap” #6.) While they did not convey a story in the traditional sense, one got the jest of what Griffin was getting at; it was the overwhelming flood of emotions, insights and jokes one gets at the peak of a psychedelic experience.

While Griffin is best known today for creating some of the Grateful Dead’s most stunning album covers, including “Aoxomoxoa, “Without a Net,” “Wake of The Flood,” “Dylan & The Dead,” and “Reckoning,” the new book puts his life and work in a chronological perspective that shows a fairly logical ebb and flow of his psyche (the 1980 publication, Gordon McClelland’s “Rick Griffin,” was just a collection of his work with very little text, but works as an excellent companion to the new book). He also created both the original and updated logos for “Rolling Stone” magazine.

Though a master artist, Griffin was mostly self-taught. He started as a cartoonist for “Surfer Magazine” when he was a young beach bum. He was already published when he took a stab at art school, but the prevailing style at the time, abstract expressionism, did little to inspire him, and he soon left to strike out on his own. Luckily, it was the dawning of the age of Aquarius and he fell in with a group of other young artists; the Jook Savages. His poster for their group art show got the attention of organizers of The Human Be-In, the first major hippie festival that drew 20,000 people to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967 - and many see it as the beginning of the psychedelic revolution. From there he got jobs in designing posters for the Family Dog promotional company and many other concert promoters in the city. His best known poster design is for the 1968 Bill Graham Presents / Jimi Hendrix concert that features the flying eye.

Griffin began to experiment with his cosmic comic strips in his concert posters - specifically one for a Family Dog presentation of Quicksilver Messenger Service in 1967 - and even talked to his occasional collaborator, psychedelic art master Victor Moscoso, about making a comic book. However before they got started they were approached by R. Crumb, who had just recruited S. Clay Wilson to help him on the second issue of “Zap,” and underground art turned a major page. They were soon joined by Spain Rodriguez and Robert Williams who, decades later, went on to publish “Juxtapoz” Magazine, which redefined their “lowbrow“ art.

Looking back at his life it is obvious that Griffin was looking for his tribe, whether it was the cult of surfers, the hippie world, or the underground comix fraternity, yet he found his ultimate goal when he became a Christian and devoted his final years to his religious paintings and the occasional CD cover or concert poster. Strangely enough, his religious work was just as cryptic and personal as his psychedelic work - it’s hard to imagine what his fellow church goers made out of his religious work. Much like Salvador Dali’s religious paintings, one doesn’t just get an image of the messiah at a table, but a transcendental blur between the physical and the spiritual, such as the crucifixion, which happens in a bleeding relief in the wall behind St. John as he writes his gospel.

Griffin was killed in a motorcycle accident; he was attempting to pass a panel truck that made a sudden left and ran into him. Ironically, his last published work was a self-portrait of himself on his knees, with pen in hand, at the gates of a psychedelic heaven.

As one revisits those heady days, many configurations change around with the passage of time. Zap Comix, which has replaced Griffin with Church of The SubGenius co-founder and artist Paul Mavrides, is set to continue on - though they have only produced sixteen comix in their forty years together. Though it’s easy to be taken in by the detail of Crumb, the psychedelic overkill of Moscoso, or the sex and violence madness of S. Clay Wilson, the subtle images of Griffin are easier to appreciate - and even comprehend - with the passage of time. They really don’t make any more sense today than they did when they were first published a lifetime ago, but understanding the man is the key to understanding his images. “Heart and Torch” is a loving tribute to one of the true masters of American art. To check out Griffin’s work online, visit myraltis.co.uk/rickgriffin/

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