If you consider yourself even slightly punk rock, Rick Griffin's art can seem like everything you hate, turned up to 11. The man was a major flower child who painted a lot of dippy, pothead surfer stuff, he is perhaps most famous for his Grateful Dead album covers, and he loaded his work with enough preachy Christian symbolism for a Mel Gibson film festival. His fans are problematic as well; they tend to look just like your draft-dodging Uncle Ray (short for Rainbow) circa 1978, they say words like "gnarly" without a hint of irony, and they smell like an off-putting combo of sea slime, sunblock and head shop.
But try as you might to hate the art of Rick Griffin, it simply cannot be done. The Laguna Art Museum's new exhibit, "Heart and Torch: Rick Griffin's Transcendence," is a sprawling thing that encompasses 140 paintings, posters, drawings, album covers and other goodies, surveying three decades of the artist's work, from the 1960s until his tragic 1991 death in a motorcycle accident. It is—and yes, I do hate myself for saying this—gnarly.
If it'll make you feel any better, Griffin was one of the founding artists of the legendary underground comic book Zap, which was just about as nasty and un-hippie as a hippie generational touchstone could possibly be. Led by comics legend R. Crumb, Griffin and the other Zap artists—Victor Moscoso, S. Clay Williams, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams and Spain Rodriguez—created work that made well-done hamburger out of every sacred cow in sight. Zap was ferociously sexual, gleefully profane, odoriferously scatological and absolutely freakin' hilarious. It was like nothing seen before, completely re-defining both what could be said in comics and how it could be said, and its influence on the art form in particular and pop culture in general is hard to overstate.
If the actual content of Griffin's work was never as shocking as Crumb's—that would've been tough to manage, when Crumb's name was becoming a household word thanks to infamous satirical strips like the incest free-for-all Joe Blow—Griffin was arguably the group's boldest, most inventive member in visual terms, conjuring up shimmering mindscapes full of little eyeball people and flaming vaginas and happy skulls making nonsensical but important-sounding pronouncements in chunky, obsessively elaborate fonts. Both Griffin and Moscoso had honed their chops by designing posters for the major San Francisco rock concerts of the day, and their comics were pure, uncut, psychedelic weirdness.
For a time, their art was almost interchangeable; they were like a two-headed, crazy genius. But then Moscoso's stuff gradually became more linear and his Disney influence came to the fore, while Griffin went off some whole other, crazy trip. At their most wonderfully incoherent, just reading Griffin's comics was enough to make you feel like you'd been awake for days, gobbling down magic mushrooms by the fistful until you passed out on the beach and a mermaid crawled out of the sea and gave you a night of mind-blowing passion. (Of course, later you woke up and discovered that the mermaid was actually a scabby homeless dude . . . which is essentially what happened to all of America in the early '70s.)
By almost any measure, Griffin's work peaked in the underground years of the late '60s. In the early '60s, he did a lot of modestly surreal, cutesy work for surf and hotrod mags, stuff that's of marginal historical interest today. By the late '70s, he had gotten so deep into the Christian thing that, frankly, you kind of have to be a Christian yourself to really dig it. The Deadhead stuff is still quite impressive graphically, but—it's the freaking Dead. Being the artist who is most associated with the Grateful Dead is slightly less cool than being the artist who is most associated with amoebic dysentery.
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But Griffin's prime '60s work is so amazing you're willing to overlook the Jerry Garcia flashbacks it evokes. Griffin's style elicits a wonderful sense of synesthesia: You hear the colors, man! You smell the words and taste the pictures! If this sort of sensory jumble is what the hippies were always going on about, well, sign us up for some of that action! (Well, that and the free love.)
Like it or not, you'll just have to check whatever remains of your punk cred at the door, step inside Griffin's world and soak up the powerful good vibes.
For a slideshow of the exhibit's featured works, click here.
"HEART AND TORCH: RICK GRIFFIN'S TRANSCENDENCE" AT THE LAGUNA ART MUSEUM, 307 CLIFF DR., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 494-8971; WWW.LAGUNAARTMUSEUM.ORG . OPEN MON.-WED. & FRI., 11 A.M.-5 P.M.; THURS., 11 A.M.-9 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 10 A.M.-6 P.M. THROUGH SEPT. 30. $8-$10.