Treasures from the Vault: Chuck Sperry

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

Today’s treasure comes from one of FWMoA’s hottest artists, Chuck Sperry. Sperry has been on the rock poster scene for over 20 years and his unique style has resulted in legions of fans who flock to his gallery openings for the chance to purchase one of his sumptuous prints. The women he features are synonymous with fantasized beauty – full lips, mysterious expressions, lithe figures, and perfectly tousled red ringlets. Justice, the print in FWMoA’s collection, embodies Sperry’s oeuvre. A gift from Sperry in 2017, Justice stares at the viewer with a contemplative gaze and appears to be on the verge of speaking to us. In short, she is captivating.

A portrait of a woman with light green, floral patterned skin, her orange falls in waves, obscuring her neck and shoulders. Behind her is a wallpaper of large, pink flowers and green leaves.
Chuck Sperry, American, b. 1962. Justice. Seven color screenprint on oak panel, 2014. Gift of Chuck Sperry & Spoke Art, 2016.138. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

When we first look at Justice, of course the girl’s beauty and striking red hair stand out. But when we look longer, there is more to see than a pretty woman. Sperry’s shimmery colors dance across the picture plane, bringing the viewer’s eye to the pattern on the woman’s face. It’s at this point that we notice that the entire piece (apart from her hair) is covered by the same pattern of strange foliage. The only difference is that the pattern on the woman’s face is monochromatic, while the background has been rendered in rich plum, red, orange, and green. While it may be tempting to write the pattern off as merely a stylistic choice, there’s actually much more to it – we just have to dig a little deeper!

The pattern Sperry has used is actually an homage to William Morris, a 19th century English Aesthetic artist who was part of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris is something of an artistic hero for Sperry. He admires Morris’s idea that art should be accessible for everyone, not just the elite. For Morris, this was most widely accomplished through (among other things) his floral wallpaper designs, many of which are featured in Sperry’s artwork.  Sperry’s work itself is an extension of accessible art for all – he has taken the motifs from his own rock posters, stripped them of their event information and band names, and left behind his striking compositions. Through this process Sperry has transcended from event posters to fine art – but he wasn’t the first artist to do this.

The history of poster art really begins in the 19th century – Sperry is a big fan of 19th century artists, as you’ll soon see. While many artists were familiar with the printmaking method of lithography, it wasn’t until Jules Cheret invented the three-stone lithographic process that poster art really got off the ground. Cheret’s new technique allowed artists to include more than one color, resulting in newly vibrant motifs and striking advertisements. Because of his advancements, Cheret is known as the grandfather of poster art.

Another development that influenced poster artists was newly open trade with Japan, which opened its borders for the first time in 1854. Artists were exposed to Ukiyo-e woodblock prints which emphasized graceful lines, beauty, and a short depth of field. This last detail results in compositions with everything sitting very close to the front of the composition, giving a poster an almost flat appearance, rather than the three-dimensionality common in landscapes. All of these details – graceful lines, an emphasis on beauty, and a short depth of field – culminated in the artistic movements of Art Nouveau, Vienna Secessionism, or Aestheticism, depending on your location in Europe.

Some of the biggest names in poster art came out of this era – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, and yes, William Morris. While Morris didn’t create posters, Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha did, and they became superstars. Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters of Jane Avril’s performances at the Moulin Rouge have become legendary, and even then, people would rip them from the walls to keep them and hang them as fine art in their homes. The same goes for Mucha’s posters advertising goods such as Perfecta Bicycles and Moet & Chandon Champagne. From the moment these men (and others) created new posters they were snatched up by collectors. Poster artists were held in such high esteem in the 19th century that singers and dancers performing in the clubs around Paris and Vienna would request designs by their favorite artists.

This clamor and fervor around 19th century poster art was the first time that an essentially utilitarian art was viewed as fine art. Think of it this way – would you rush out and rip down a billboard or sign advertising something like a Schwinn bicycle? That’s what these collectors did! And it’s exactly how Sperry’s fans follow his artwork. He’s brought the 19th century poster art fervor forward to the 21st century.

A famous poster by Lautrec, shows Jane Avril, a can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French, 1864-1901. Jane Avril. Lithograph, 1893. Public Domain.

Sperry is not only knowledgeable in the long lineage of poster art, he’s spelled it out in his own work for us. While he is an advocate for “art for all,” by including references to William Morris, Alphonse Mucha, and Art Nouveau in his compositions, he’s tipping his hat to his predecessors and laying clues for informed viewers, letting them in on his art history mystery. We’ve already noted his Morris wallpaper nuggets, but we also see the flat picture plane of Art Nouveau, and many of Sperry’s figures have whipping red ringlets reminiscent of Mucha. Who knows, in 170 years or more historians could be dissecting the work of Chuck Sperry and his influence on the history of poster artists. Could he become the new Cheret, the 21st century’s grandfather of poster art? Only time will tell.

To learn more about Sperry’s influences, check out Elizabeth’s interview with him from last week or come into FWMoA to see his work for yourself!

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