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Artists You Judge by Their Covers: Exhibit Features Record Albums

December 17, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Lou Beach pointed to the gallery wall adorned with album covers he's designed for everybody from the Police to jazz bassist Charlie Haden. Thanks to his distinctive surreal-collage technique, Beach is one of rock's most respected album artists.

But respect only goes so far. "Haden didn't like what I did at all," Beach cheerfully acknowledged, gesturing toward the cover, which featured a photo-portrait of the bassist colored with hypnotic geometric patterns. "And as for the Police--they wanted a weird portrait, but I guess mine was too weird. They ended up using a different version."

Beach is one of dozens of prominent album artists whose works are on display at the Mag Galleries' "Album Cover Art" exhibition that runs through Jan. 6. Organized by gallery director Arthur Fricke and featuring works ranging from the whimsical surrealist Neon Park to cubist cartoonist Robert Williams, Tuesday night's opening was a cheeky treat for art and rock fans alike.

Despite the rejections, Beach still has plenty of fans who've commissioned his work, including ex-Blaster Dave Alvin, oddball popsters Martini Ranch and best of all--his dentist.

"He's a great guy--I trade him artwork for CDs and records," said Beach, noting that David Hockney and Ed Ruscha are patients too.

"And, of course, he throws in the office visits and the X-rays."

With everyone sipping tiny cups of beer and nibbling on snacks in the chilly gallery space, the crowd itself was a visual feast--the Art Pack in full regalia.

Long-haired rockers in sneakers mixed with TV producers in navy blue trench coats. Punkers in ponytails eyed an artist in a leather baseball cap, while everybody stole a glance at a Melrose gallery owner outfitted in a fringed buckskin jacket, topped with a zebra-patterned cowboy hat. It was such an eclectic mix that actor Crispin Glover wandered about almost unnoticed, mumbling to himself as he stared at the original collage cover from the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" album.

Crowd favorites on display included included Pedro Bell's outrageous, cartoon-style Funkadelic covers; Timothy Eames' sculpture for the Neville Brothers' "Uptown" album; Amy Vansgard's rejected cover for Prince's "America" single and Neon Park's inspired recasting of Humphrey Bogart as Donald Duck for a Little Feat compilation album titled "As Time Goes By."

Even at best, album covers are the offspring of an uneasy alliance between artist, pop star and an increasingly marketing-crazed record company.

The exhibit's most instructive piece, stretched out in seven cartoon-style sections along a far wall, offered a satirical history of a prolonged cover-art battle between the seminal new-wave band Devo and its label, Warner Bros. Records. The band's original cover featured a piece of "found-art" taken from an ad for a Chi Chi Rodriguez-model rubber golf cart strap.

However, Warners' legal department wouldn't let Devo use an actual image of Chi Chi. Forced to improvise, the group tried several alternatives, including a technique where they reconstituted Chi Chi's face using body parts from past U.S. Presidents (including LBJ's ears and Nixon's nose).

Finally, Devo simply paid Rodriguez $2,500 for permission to use his image, but Warners ended up using one of the "mutant images," claiming it lacked time to redo the artwork before the album's release.

Did Chi Chi mind? Hardly. The final frame of the display had an autographed photo of the golfer in mid-swing, with the punch line: "Chi Chi orders 100 Devo LPs to give out as Christmas gifts."

Could the record business really be this byzantine? An attorney from a rival record company beamed with delight as he studied Devo's account of this nightmare. "I'd love to have this on the wall of my office," he said. "This captures how the industry works perfectly."

The members of Devo, who are a rarity--musicians who also function as artists--weren't the only ones with works on exhibit who've clashed with their record company patrons. Photo-artist Hugh Brown (whose business card bills him as an "Evil Genius") was talking shop with Robert Williams, an acclaimed, though controversial artist who got his start in the '60s as art director for Big Daddy Roth.

Brown, wearing a pair of red high tops decorated with a pattern featuring the smiling face of Idi Amin, was brooding about the future of album art.

"If a group becomes successful through their videos, then they don't want to fool around with album art. The record companies simply want a picture of the band, to reinforce the image and personality they've created through their videos."

Williams was equally pessimistic. His album cover for the glam-rock band Guns 'N Roses was so provocative that the group's record company was forced to issue an alternate cover for squeamish local record stores.

Oddly enough, Williams' biggest clash was with Warners' exec Jeri Heiden, who runs the label's art department and is a key supporter of the gallery's exhibit.

"My entire department was offended by the piece of art, so much so that no one would touch the project, " she said. "But the band really wanted it, so we sent it to a free-lance designer who handled the project outside the company."

This gesture apparently was lost on Williams, an artist rebel with slicked-back gray hair and the rugged look of someone who'd be at home on a Harley.

"In the '60s I got in trouble with the fundamentalist right and now I get in hot water with the feminist left," he said with a shrug. "Whatever I do seems to cause problems. That's why I like these great crude, Philistine bands who come by to look at my stuff. If you're provocative, they think you got the right idea."

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