Punk Master of the Absurd Winston Smith Shows His Art
by James Sullivan
Making posters for San Francisco’s punk scene of the late 1970s, Winston Smith was drawn to the movement’s anti-hippie grotesquery.
“Flower power was so pretty it was co-opted by Kleenex,” Smith says. “The punk scene was so ugly, so off-putting, that we thought nobody would want to touch it.”
Best known as the collage artist behind many Dead Kennedys images, Smith has done dozens of album covers (including Green Day’s “Insomniac”) and Fillmore posters (Soul Coughing, Porno for Pyros) during the past 20 years. His work has appeared in magazines such as Spin and Architectural Digest, and in January a Smith montage will accompany a Kurt Vonnegut story in Playboy.
Having long maintained that his art is actually the prints he makes from the original cutouts, Smith is showing the originals for the first time at two San Francisco exhibits: “Rock Artcrime: From Dead Kennedys to Green Day” at 111 Minna Street Gallery (through next Sunday) and “Apocalypse Wow!: Handcarved Anarchy in Print” at Lawrence Hultberg Fine Art (through December 27).
As a teenager, Smith left his native Oklahoma for Florence, Italy, where he studied painting at the Academy of Art. “Looks good on a resume,” he says with a laugh. “I was never a good student.”
His return to America in 1976, he says, “was a bit like Rip Van Winkle. The whole culture had gone through the wringer.”
After working for a few years as a “rent-a-roadie” with bands including Santana, Journey, and Crosby Stills and Nash, Smith began making posters. Flipping through old magazines, he satirized American consumer culture by creating absurd tableaux from advertising images.
“I’ll go through thousands of sheets of paper to find a chain saw to put in an ape’s hands,” he says. “I’ll make a Mona Lisa hold a live wolverine.”
Such juxtapositions keep Smith giggling to himself as he works. “My friends probably think I’m half nuts,” he says. When people tell him his work looks as if he “didn’t do anything” because “that stuff’s already there,” Smith feels vindicated: “That’s exactly my point.”
“You don’t have to do much to this stuff, it’s so absurd. And you realize these (images) weren’t even done by people messed up on hard drugs. They were advertising executives on Madison Avenue.”
After years toiling in the underground (almost literally — the North Beach resident still keeps a primitive ranch, without electricity or running water, near Mendocino), Smith is amused to see his brand of dadaist nonsense cropping up in contemporary advertising.
“What used to be my little ironic joke is now the mainstream,” he says. “Shows how low the mainstream has sunk.”