San Francisco Chronicle Datebook

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).

Both shows coin­cide with the pub­li­ca­tion of Smith’s sec­ond book Art­crime (Last Gasp). The artist will attend a recep­tion from 7 until 10p.m. Thurs­day at Hult­berg, 544 Hayes St.

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.”

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