Rock SmART Interview

 In Interviews

By Stacey Brook

Artist Jermaine Rogers designs rock posters with a message. If you have heard Radiohead’s latest album, “Hail to the Thief,” you are sure to have noticed Thom Yorke’s prophetic voice belting out an eerie warning on the very first track. “Pay attention!” he repeats over and over again, as if the act of singing the words is the only thing keeping him from drowning in a world of complete chaos. This haunting phrase, “Pay attention!” is what struck poster artist Jermaine Rogers when he was commissioned to create one of his signature concert posters for Radiohead’s most recent tour date at the C.W. Mitchell Pavilion in Houston.

To look at this poster is to immerse yourself in a circus of imagery. Misshapen figures… take the forms of prominent personae in American life: A crooked priest, a drooling television executive, and businessmen with dollar-sign faces are just some of the characters who inhabit this creepy landscape. It is also dotted with images of a ghostly university, planes zooming overhead, and smoking twin towers. Lurching out from the center of this mayhem is a daunting creature with a drooling third eye who is labeled “protektor.” In one hand he holds a young mutant child, while the other arm reaches to engulf a sea of people who stand helpless, covering their eyes. In the very center of the group, one acutely animated face emerges, pointing at the “protektor” and the surrounding scene, emphatically urging us, pleading with us to “Pay attention!”

This sort of imagery may seem a bit scathing for a concert promotions poster, and it is. But that of course, is the point. Rogers is a man who refuses to pass up the opportunity to make powerful art. Poster artists and fans alike have speculated about this particular poster’s social and political implications, but Rogers insists there are none. “I basically looked at the world circa 2003 and drew what I saw” he says.

You would expect a man whose artistic translation of the world is so fraught with…imagery to be a pessimist at his core. Rogers, however, is a self-made man who truly believes that “you are only so much hard work and sacrifice away from anything you want.” There was no neatly drawn map to success for this African-American, rock and roll poster artist from the South. A Texas native, Rogers grew up in Houston where he discovered early in his childhood he had an artistic gift. He attended art school briefly when he was twelve, but realized, even at this young age, that he did not agree with the concept of grading artwork. Rogers received no other formal training in the arts. Instead, he drew inspiration from various forms of popular culture including comic books and his mother’s old concert posters from the 1960’s.

According to Rogers, “I used to create little psychedelic-style posters for bands that I liked. I must have been about fourteen and I created this flyer, and it was real psychedelic and trippy. It was a show for like ten of my favorite artists so it was like, Run DMC, LL Cool J, U2, Rush and Jimi Hendrix. And I just made this flyer.”

Rogers had been a music fan since first listening to records with his mother in the 70s. When it came to exercising his drawing skills, the marriage of art and music just seemed to make sense. Strangely enough, around the same time Rogers was experimenting with trippy concert fliers for imaginary festivals, another Texas resident, Frank Kozik, was distributing little black and white promotional fliers around the city of Austin.

Kozik, who over the years has become known as the “father of modern poster art,” began making black and white fliers for rock shows in Houston and Austin in the late 70’s, early 80’s. Kozik’s fliers, and later his posters and multicolored silkscreens differed dramatically from the simple-lettered, boxing-style posters of the 1950’s and the psychedelic concert art of the 60’s. (Silkscreens are very sophisticated, extremely high resolution prints that are created using a process that separates images by color layers. A poster is run through the press one time for every color in the design.) His bold, cartoony illustrations and high contrast imagery complemented the loud and rebellious image of the developing punk scene. Like many music fans at the time, Rogers was drawn to Kozik’s artwork and started a collection.

“I remember friends of mine had tons of Kozik posters. I was here in the town where most of those shows happened. I mean, I was there. I pulled my poster off the wall,” notes Rogers. Hording posters he tore from the walls of concert venues all through high school, he did not immediately recognize concert poster art as an professional avenue. He was working in the Department of Astronomy at the Museum of Natural Science, a job he simply fell into, (“I know a little about a lot of things,” he explains.) when the epiphany hit. The source of Rogers’ inspiration was a commercial for none other than the U.S. Army. Rogers recalls the ad’s tagline with perfect clarity: “The narrator said, ‘All your life, you’ve read the stories of other people’s lives. Now start writing your own.’ And it sounds corny, but I was like, I need to start writing my life. Pick up the pencil and go.”

Rogers promptly gave notice on his job and started living what he calls “a hardcore, starving artist kind of life.” Times were tough for him. He spent his days in a little 10 by 10 efficiency apartment, “eating once a day sometimes.”

But Rogers was beginning to carve a niche for himself in the underground rock and punk scene. He started to make fliers for shows around Houston, and in 1995 he created posters for bands like Fishbone, The Cramps, Belly, and The Skit Militia Rave Crew. He also designed a poster for KMFDM, a print that marked the first appearance of Rogers’ signature teddy bear, the image that would become his trademark.

His teddy bears are no soft and cuddly creatures. The bears tower over humans in posters. Some have bright red eyes and cavernous mouths full of… teeth, while some have round, sad eyes that reflect a sense of melancholy and foreboding. Others still with crossed and vacant eyes that suggest brainwashing, exhaustion. Rogers cites the old McDonalds commercials “with people dressed up in big suits in a world where everything was alive,” as his inspiration for these creatures. And, as with much of his imagery, a provocative and slightly cynical intent underlies these mutant forms. He explains that, “the bear thing started from the idea of taking something that most people had already been socially taught represented security and safety and innocence, and warping it.”

Rogers saw an increasing response to his bears and began to incorporate them in more of his posters. Ever the science fiction fanatic, Rogers penned a history of the bears, known as “Dero.” He began unveiling their story in the imagery and text of his poster art.

A Weezer poster for a gig from their 2000 tour, features an extreme close-up of a pink bear with bulbous red eyes that look in opposite directions, and the number 72 scrawled into his forehead (the number 72 is incorporated into many of Jermaine’s designs, the meaning of which Jermaine prefers to keep a mystery.) The bear looms over a young blond man, imploring him in a speech bubble that reads, “You have no idea what they are planning. You must come.” Scrawled white text at the top of the poster serves as narration: “I’d seen the bears many times during my childhood. Now, 20 years later, one of them has appeared to me again. He is more haggard than I remember. His eyes are full of fear.”

It is clear when examining the story behind the Dero, the entirety of which can be found on Rogers’ website, that this artist is an exceptional writer and well-read. Although he never attended college, he needs a great deal of philosophical and cultural stimulation. Art Chantry, colleague and poster design legend, describes Rogers as “an intense, complex individual with the worldview of an intellectual.” His posters reveal his cerebral nature, and he often gives nods to those whose words and ideas have influenced him.

For example, Rogers drew Oscar Wilde, Tolouse Lautrec, and Felix Feneon into a 2002 Morrissey poster. He justifies the sentimentally poetic inclusion of these three figures at the very bottom of the poster writing, “voices from another age implore me to see between the lines.” He explains, “Lautrec, Wilde, Feneon…along with others from history…they speak to us from across the years, I believe. They beg us to LIVE and THINK!”

Although he weaves complex and provocative messages into his work, he is adamant about creating art for the common man. His love of pop culture and resultant inclusion of nostalgic and iconographic imagery in his work, bring his posters back into the heart of the streets. It is not uncommon to find allusions to early television shows and science fiction movies lurking in the colorful prints.

In a 2001 poster for Ugly Casanova, Rogers depicts a profound conversation between Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch and Grover. Oscar, cynical as ever, provokes his furry friend saying, “but isn’t the entire concept of ‘God’ just a little out-dated?” Grover, starry-eyed and stamped with the ominous “72” replies, “Not at all! There’s so much evidence in all of nature that you just can’t ignore.” Far from the squeaky clean, politically correct exchanges about friendship and the alphabet, this poster puts Rogers’ scathing wit on display. Not even Sesame Street is safe from the artist’s warped looking glass.

Rogers continually challenges himself to forge links between popular culture and higher levels of thinking; between art and the intricacies of love and life. It is his unique illustration style, however, that initially piques curiosity and rocks the senses of the viewer. His posters are ferociously bold, colorful and creative; the embodiment of both the artist’s passion, and the music he seeks to represent. Most people have never seen anything like it before.

From the start of his career, Rogers embraced the linework-heavy style. His style maintains a similar cartoon and comic feel, but a soft sense of nuance and humanity inhabits the lines. Unlike the tightly-drawn, angular characters of Kozik, and the shiny, plastic women of Coop, (both of which bear a resemblance to the work of illustrator-genius Robert Crumb) his images are created in perfect looseness with emphasis on the thick curvaceous lining of shapes. It is a style that few other artists have the courage to pull off. There is something lush and obese about these illustrations, which are often defined by bold, yet slightly relaxed line work.

And Rogers’ artistic talents do not end at illustration. Never content to rest within the confines of past achievements, he began experimenting with new media in concert poster production about two years ago. A lover of the fine arts, and a lifetime admirer of Vincent Van Gogh, Rogers decided to picked up the paintbrush and extend the boundaries of his artform. The result of this leap into an unfamiliar medium has been a revolutionary body of work that stretches Rogers’ creative resources across a succession of prints. Like Van Gogh, he rarely adheres to the textbook rules of technique. The posters feature painted images comprised of an array of overlapping colors and brush textures. His paintings emanate a warmth not previously explored in his line work. The painted posters feel more personal, as if after all these years, he has finally invited us in.

Rogers’ assessment of his own progress is modest, as one would expect. His slightly cynical nature keeps the artist grounded, while his overwhelming belief in the value of hard work and sacrifice catapults him forward. It is difficult for him to distinguish specific works as being personal landmarks, sentimentally or nostalgically important pieces, unprecedented accomplishments. He views his work as indigenous to his being. “There’s so many, and yet none of them are really important, cause the way I view art is literally, sort of like breathing. You breathe in, and the air goes into your lungs, and your lungs keep everything that’s beneficial, and when all the processes have been done, then you exhale. And to me that’s what the artwork is. It’s exhaling all the things you’ve taken in.” “I mean there are certain prints I have little memories about and funny little stories behind, but none so important where I can be like, ‘now THIS print is one that’s so special because, ‘ It would be like me singling out a breath. Like ‘the third breath I took on August 15, 1982 was such a good breath and here’s why. ‘”

Only Jermaine Rogers’ body of work will tell the story. From the black and white punk fliers to the large screenprints, the warped teddy bears and pop icons to the dramatic line work and experimental paintings, Rogers is trying to tell you something. And you might just get something out of it, if you’re willing to pay attention.