The problem with being a jack of all trades is that no one believes you can really do it all. Just like people grow up to accept weird maxims like “more expensive is better,” so the pervasive line that artists with varied mediums of output are somehow always “spreading themselves too thin.” For some reason, we live in a world that demands the convenience of specialty—excel in your field, it says, and stay there.
Aaron Cometbus is well-known for his writing and his bands, but I’ve always rued the fact that his distinctive Xerox-style artwork hasn’t gotten its deserved due, and long wondered why he’s never had an official art show. Tonight, that oversight was remedied as 1-2-3-4-Go Records in Oakland hosted a long-overdue gallery opening of Aaron’s work.
Why did it take so long? As owner Steve Stevenson put it, “Aaron said that no one’s ever asked him before.”
Whatever the reasons for delayed appreciation—and really, I see no reason why Aaron’s art won’t be in the SFMOMA someday, probably after we’re all dead—the modest little curation of flyers, record art and personal archives on display at 1-2-3-4 Go through the end of February is a must-see, covering some classic icons (an original Crimpshrine flyer with the Cometbus #24 Peggy Lee image) and barely-seen innovations (an incredible flyer for a club’s last show, with photos of and word-bubble quotes from regulars about its importance).
Much of the art is wonderful, of course. But underlying Aaron’s transparency manipulations and intricate patterning is something deeper and more universal. The right of flyering as freedom of speech for the underprivileged is the concern of one beautiful 11×17 diatribe, expertly explaining a dilemma all to familiar to those who’ve hit the town with a bag of flyers and an Arrow T-50 stapler.
“The people with money have allotted the people with no money only certain spaces where they are allowed to be heard,” he writes. “These are called “community” spaces. These spaces total about 30 feet for an entire city’s communal needs. Thirty feet for all the lost dogs, lost wallets, charity raffles, punk shows, political rallies, summer sublets, yard sales, runaway children, art, and ideas. The posters pile up and are torn down, competing for the tiny amount of allotted space. How can you cover up a poster for a cute little lost puppy in order to advertise your cultural event?”
Aaron’s working methods have always been fascinating, and even after being tipped off, 20 years ago, that he used a Kodak IM-40 for halftones and reversals, no one could ever achieve the same effect on the same machine. Many cumulative hours can be spent staring into his layouts, wondering how the hell he got just the right look. Some tricks are hinted at in the show by revealing different stages of work—the various stages of the art that became Pinhead Gunpowder’s Compulsive Disclosure, for example, or the series shown at the top here that resulted in the flyer below—but as he said to me tonight, “It’s like magic. You don’t want to give away too much of the process.”
Unlike a conventional art show, nearly all of the pieces are photocopies and none are for sale. No one explains this better than Aaron, so I’ll just quote an excerpt of his artist statement:
My medium—pen, paint and xerox—was probably my mother’s fault. She was an artist, working in fiber and textiles. I was inspired by her use of shading and ability to define form with just a few lines, but I was also depressed to see her one-of-a-kind pieces go to rich collectors, never to be seen again. If I hadn’t already been drawn to means that were mass-produced, that would have done the trick. Xeroxing or silkscreening became an integral part in my creative process. Without that final step, the work feels incomplete, which is why—with few exceptions—it is copies you see on the walls here rather than the original cut and paste.
And so there you have it. Basic Radio’s “Meat Market” played on the sound system, a coffee pot that Aaron brought in himself sat upon the counter, the place filled up beyond capacity and a lot of overdue praise was lovingly heaped on Aaron Cometbus—artist, writer, musician, and a positive cultural instigator who’s never been content excelling in just one field. Thank goodness.
The Cometbus Art Show runs through the end of February at 1-2-3-4 Go! Records, 423 40th St., Oakland. Open everyday from noon to 7pm, with an excellent selection of punk and indie vinyl. 510.985.0325.