CULTURE

Angered by the sad state of the world, maverick artist fires up his potent work

His work has a place somewhere between galleries and street art. Chuck Sperry has created posters for pop and rock music artists such as U2, John Lee Hooker, Madonna, MC5, and Tool. Maintaining two bases – one in San Francisco, the other in Milan – Sperry recently visited Athens to take part in the annual Comics Festival, organized a couple of weeks ago by the long-running counterculture magazine Vavel. In an interview with Kathimerini, Sperry made clear his rage over US President George W. Bush’s foreign and domestic policies. «In Europe, people wipe the smile off their faces as soon as I say I’m an American,» Sperry said. In the 60s, the anti-war movement was able to stop the war in Vietnam. Can it achieve the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq? In Vietnam, the US Army was based on a lottery system and students feared being drawn into the hell of war. [The draft system] is not the same today, which may explain the student movement’s reduced reaction. Of course, the polarization between supporters and opponents of the war is increasingly intensifying. Despite lacking political judgment, the US president has played the game correctly by keeping the citizens far away from Iraq, and, instead, sending in men from the National Guard, a rich reserve, for the time being. That’s why, following Hurricane Katrina, there weren’t enough National Guard forces to help the victims in New Orleans. [Bush] is also using mercenaries to do the dirty work in Iraq. This trend toward uncontainable privatization began with the army and, nowadays, has taken over all the important sectors – health, education, social welfare. How can schools, hospitals, and policing function purely on the basis of profit? In the USA, a considerable percentage of the work force is uninsured, and companies are cutting fringe benefits that were once provided. In my opinion your work has been influenced, to a great degree, by artists of the psychedelic scene in the 60s, like Rick Griffin. The Big Five, comprising Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and Peter Max, as well as Gary Grimshaw, were the teachers for me and my collaborator, Ron Donovan. Janis Joplin’s manager, Chet Helms, was behind all these artists. He pushed them into designing concert posters and would supply them with orders. He was the creator of the psychedelic style. My girlfriend was his secretary, so I got to meet him and hang out. I used to make him tell stories about [Jimi] Hendrix and Joplin. One day, I showed him some posters I’d designed and he liked them. He died last summer… Your work’s heroes come from the pits of the American Dream. Punks and fringe groups. represent American self-ridicule. I take images from B-movies, gossip magazines, front covers of cheap crime books, film noir. That’s very postmodern. If postmodernism means snatching older styles, then we need to remember that in art, new things have always been based on deviations of old. Michelangelo drew from ancient work and transformed it into a Christian framework. You’ve also established a second studio, «Firehouse Europe,» in Milan. Do you find that there are differences in modern culture between Europe and the US? Bands that tour the entire world create a homogenous musical culture. My posters can be easily distinguished by European audiences because they make reference to these groups. The difference between Europeans and Americans is the way they react to what has nowadays turned into common experience. Firehouse Europe functions as a hub that will allow us to work with European artists and compatriots touring the continent. Raymond Pettibon began by designing album covers for punk records and these days exhibits work at major galleries and museums. What’s your view? This is the way things went for Pettibon, and I don’t think it’s something that can be condemned. His brother’s band, Black Flag, whose album covers he used to create, broke up and he sought new ways of expression, while, at the same time, pushing punk into a bigger arena. He remains just as enraged… A few years ago, we [Sperry’s team] were approached by Virgin Megastores and given the task of designing a poster, which we did in such a way as to prompt its rejection, deliberately. The theme was the launch of a record store in the Lower East Side, right next to a squat. So we drew a punk whose jacket carried the motto «Destroy.» We put the record store’s logo at the bottom, so it looked like we were giving the go-ahead for the store’s destruction. Even so, they liked it so much that they made it into a giant poster and continued providing us with work for the next three years. Attacking the establishment with artworks Chuck Sperry was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1962. He studied journalism and fine arts at the University of Missouri and was eventually drawn to graphic design. He relocated to New York City in 1985 and began co-publishing «World War III Illustrated,» a project that has now developed into a revered item for the anti-war movement. Sperry moved to San Francisco in 1989 and established the Firehouse studio with Ron Donovan. They have designed more than 500 rock concert posters. Through irony, sarcasm, and rich coloring, Sperry and Donovan have systematically attacked American conservatism, as well as the music industry, which is the source of their work. Their posters, which these days are exhibited as works of art, feature trademark characters who are redrafted in ways to send out new messages.