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A Striking New Exhibit Celebrates 50 Years of ‘Women of Rock Art’

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A gold, purple and orange design showing a mystic and a crystal ball, one hand raised in wonder.
A 1967 Bonnie MacLean design promoting Cream at the Fillmore. (Courtesy of the Haight Street Art Center)

On Feb. 4, 2020, the world lost Bonnie MacLean — an artist whose work adorned Fillmore music posters throughout the Summer of Love. MacLean’s images encompassed elements of art nouveau, psychedelia and hippie culture. They used high contrast colors for maximum impact. And they advertised concerts for the likes of Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Chuck Berry, The Doors, Donovan and Pink Floyd.

During her time making the Fillmore — and San Francisco — a more beautiful place, MacClean designed just 32 posters. Nine of those collectors’ items are currently on display as part of Women of Rock Art: 1965-2023, a new exhibit at the Haight Street Art Center curated by Ben Marks. The show focuses exclusively on female poster artists, many of whom hail from the Bay Area or lived here at some point. (They may not have local links, but the striking work of Tara McPherson, Isadora Bullock, Chelsea Housand, Sadie May and Mishka Westell feels perfectly at home in this show.)

The exhibit is a jaunt through this particular brand of rock ‘n’ roll artwork through the decades — almost all of which reflects its era and the influences of the women making it. Two hundred pieces by 55 artists are included, starting with hand-drawn hallucinogen-inspired experiments of the 1960s. That style was perfected by Berkeley-born Samantha Sirdofsky, but lovingly and more loosely played with by others, including a mysterious artist known only as Marjorie. The screen-printed work of Coralie Russo carries similar silhouettes to her peers but a simpler, bolder color palette — a product of her tool of choice.

Illustration of a woman's face, facing forward, wearing a winged helmet with a peace sign on it.
A 1967 anti-draft benefit poster by Coralie Russo. (Rae Alexandra)

The posters from this period aren’t just for live shows. Some promote anti-draft benefits, children’s events and one Grateful Dead concert that also featured “mime troupe puppets.” Given the limited opportunities available for female artists of the period, it’s no wonder they were advertising some of the more fringe gatherings.

It’s well established that the art of San Francisco’s 1960s music scene was dominated by the so-called “Big Five”: Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoco, Rick Griffin and Wes Wilson. Bonnie MacLean was only granted more opportunities at the Fillmore after Bill Graham and Wes Wilson had a difference of opinion and Wilson quit. MacLean was readily available — she was married to Graham at the time. Even so, before Wilson left she had been relegated to painting noticeboards within the venue.

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Most of the exhibit is presented without comment and that’s no accident either. Curator Ben Marks explained to KQED that despite his best efforts, little is known today about some of the earliest women featured. Thankfully, the exhibit’s introductory statement acknowledges just what these women were up against at the dawn of the artform.

A wall of scrappy multicolored flyers advertising concerts.
‘Women of Rock Art’ also features a wall of 1980s flyers donated by Seattle punk band, Student Nurse. (Rae Alexandra)

Post-1960s, Women of Rock Art rather starkly leaps straight into the 1980s — a jump made all the more jarring by that decade’s shift away from paint to photography. That style is best embodied here by the work of Arlene Owseichik, but feels a touch impersonal by comparison to everything around it. No fault of the artist: The work embodies that decade’s hard lean away from the crowded, swirling aesthetics of the 1970s and into a new, cleaner, MTV-infused modernity.

Work on display here from the ’90s demonstrates valiant attempts at combining photos and screen-printing on the same poster. That method was sadly short-lived, and dynamic posters here for Throwing Muses, Big Star and Lush will make you wonder why we gave up on it altogether.

The new millennium brought with it a return to hyper-detailed and hand-drawn pieces, like that of Bay Area artists Lauren Yurkovich and Alexandra Fischer. There have been few obvious trend shifts in the last 20 years either — a post-modern reflection of the ways in which music culture has become more egalitarian since the dawn of the internet.

It is, however, impossible to ignore the sense of full circularity when looking at some of the newest posters on display. One 2022 Soul Asylum promo by Carolyn Ferris — featuring a woman’s face in side profile with band names unfurling in front of her in waves — appears to be a direct homage to a 1967 Bonnie MacLean piece elsewhere in the exhibit. And Oakland-based artist Caitlin Mattison combines hyper-detailed modern techniques with aesthetics that clearly hark back to the work of the women that came before her.

Illustration featuring a bohemian looking woman sitting on a horseshoe and surrounded by wilderness.
Caitlin Mattison’s poster for last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. (Rae Alexandra)

All of which would no doubt thrill Bonnie MacLean. In one interview a few years before her death, MacLean noted: “I think handwork needs to be kept alive. It’s something people are inclined to do naturally. It’s something we have a human built-in desire to do. It always has been. It still is.”

‘Women of Rock Art: 1965-2023’ is on display now through April 14, 2024. Artist and photographer Arlene Owseichik will appear for a Q&A on Feb. 9 at 6 p.m. An official opening party will take place on Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. Visit the Haight Street Art Center website for details.

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