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Shaman with a fun side

Rick Griffin retrospective at a Laguna museum reveals an imagination as twisted as it was genius.

July 03, 2007|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

Rick Griffin (1944-91) is already an icon several times over: of mid-'60s Southern California surf culture, of late '60s psychedelic graphic design, of the underground comics movement and -- a surprising but not entirely anomalous turn -- of rock 'n' roll evangelicalism.

Now "Heart and Torch: Rick Griffin's Transcendence" at the Laguna Art Museum, his first major retrospective, aims to piece all these facets together and promote him to the status of, in co-curator Doug Harvey's words, "capital-A artist" while, presumably, maintaining his outsider mystique.

It's a delicate balance, but one that Harvey (a critic for the LA Weekly) and the Laguna museum (which organized the show) have frequently sought. And they have succeeded admirably this time, presenting a considered -- if exceedingly enthusiastic -- portrait of an artist who worked within popular graphic forms (magazines, rock posters, comics) yet with such consummate skill and so peculiar a vision that he was never entirely contained by them.

Harvey's strategy, articulated in the catalog's central essay, is to cast Griffin as a sort of latter-day shaman. He points to an early near-death experience the artist had (in an automobile accident), his affinity for Native American culture, his propensity for hallucinogens and the company he tended to keep.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Laguna Art Museum: A box accompanying a review in Tuesday's Calendar section of the Rick Griffin exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum said the museum would be closed the Fourth of July and Labor Day. It is open today and will also be open Sept. 3.

"The various subcultural contexts of Griffin's life and career," he writes, "can be read as a sequence of tribal situations -- Surf Culture, Psychedelic Culture, Jesus Freak Culture -- that sought to create Utopian splinter microcosms of human society to which various consciousness-transforming sacraments were central. In each case, Griffin's role was to act as an intermediary between the experiential and the symbolic realms."

At a glance, this might seem a bit of a stretch, given the jaunty, cartoonish nature of much of the imagery, especially from Griffin's early days. (His best-known character -- a grinning, pear-shaped surfer tyke named Murphy -- looks something like a beach bum alter ego of Dennis the Menace.) Look closer, however, and you'll find some pretty trippy stuff. Indeed, the closer you look, the weirder it gets.

Mustachioed aliens, potbellied surf rats, crazed Disney characters, top-hatted Indians, Trojan warriors, tiki gods, cowboys, skulls, cobras, beetles, fetuses, hordes of wriggling sperm, armies of anthropomorphized eyeballs, fearsome horned creatures of various sorts, a praying mantis in work boots playing a violin and, of course, Jesus -- the cast reads like some crazy eruption of the collective American subconscious.

The earliest work, made for Surfer magazine and other like-minded outlets while Griffin was in his teens, is narrative in nature and relatively straightforward. After that near-death experience, however (in 1963), a brief stint in art school (at Chouinard -- now CalArts -- in 1964), some time on the Mexican coast, the birth of his first daughter and his move to San Francisco in 1966, something seems to have gone marvelously awry.

He began designing posters for rock concerts as one of a loose band of designers, known as "The Big Five," who essentially crystallized the graphic sensibility of the era, then fell in with the Zap Comix crowd. Murphy reappeared with a giant kachina head, tackling waves implanted with "mystic eyes" and spontaneously spouting Latin.

The posters are definitely cool -- the typography, in particular, is dazzling -- but it's the comics that show Griffin at the height of his strange powers. Linear narrative largely dissolves. Frames splinter and spin across the page at crazy angles. Text takes on a visual life of its own, largely detached from logic.

The imagery itself is dense, rich, technically flawless and baffling. In one of the more coherent sequences, intended for the Beatles Illustrated Song Book, a fierce-looking bug with Mickey Mouse hands and feet plays an electric guitar, howling the lyrics to "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" while eyeballs enact violent chapters of American history (the slaughter of Native Americans, slavery, the bombing of Vietnam), the figure of Death empties toxic sludge from a dump truck, and a kachina-faced sun spews a stream of flying saucers from its mouth across a desert landscape.

Despite the introduction of a new medium (acrylic on canvas) and a somewhat more coherent pictorial vocabulary, the work that followed Griffin's conversion to Christianity (after 1970) is no less trippy. Indeed, what's striking is not the gap between the periods but the continuity.

Harvey's artist-as-shaman argument, romantic as it might sound, is apt: Griffin was an artist poised between seen and unseen worlds. Which vehicle he relied on to shuffle from one to the other -- whether a surfboard, LSD or Jesus Christ -- is of little consequence artistically speaking.

Perhaps more important, Harvey's argument is a clever way of bypassing the now beyond-stale high art/low art debate to pose an alternative way of looking at what makes art valuable. The gap between an artist like Griffin and those in the "capital-A" club is one of context, not talent, and if Griffin's peg doesn't fit in that hole, carving new holes seems more interesting anyway. Plus, Griffin's club is probably a lot more fun.


`Heart and Torch: Rick Griffin's Transcendence'

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. (Closed July Fourth and Labor Day.)

Ends: Sept. 30

Price: $10 general; $8 seniors, students and active-duty military and their dependents; free for children 12 and younger

Contact: (949) 494-8971 or

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