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Rocking the gallery

Pint maker Bob Cooney. Picture: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

The great psychedelic posters of the 1960s, the punk graphics of the 1970s, the left-wing political flyers of the early 1980s: these were objects destined for the windows of San Francisco's Haight- Ashbury hippy shops, the walls of underground clubs and pubs, suburban fences and houses pasted illicitly under the cover of night.

But even the most subversive methods of visual expression eventually make their way beyond their street origins, winding their way into art galleries and private collections.

The Fremantle Art Centre's new exhibition, Anarchy, Rock & Ink, is a three-pronged tribute to printmaking in its most expressive and subversive forms.

Black Cat & Beyond, curated by Bob Cooney, is a survey of the notorious squeegee art collective that worked out of New York in the 1970s and 80s, creating politically questioning posters exploring everything from housing shortages and police violence to institutionalised racism.

Beyond the Pale is a survey of the Melbourne studio that has produced some of the world's finest rock poster art, while Riley (The Cow) explores the central motif of Perth artist Rachel Salmon-Lomas - a bovine signature that appears in hundreds of her etched prints.

For Cooney, putting together a survey of New York's most radical squeegee artists has brought back strong memories of the 17 years he spent in the city between 1980 and 1997, during which time he was part of the collective of "artists, activists and anarchists" shaking up the streets with their provocative posters.

Now based in Sydney and working as a printmaker, teacher and performance artist, Cooney says making poster art was the most direct and "economically possible" way of getting political messages across without having to compete with more mainstream forms of art and communication. The posters produced during this time varied widely in style and subject matter, but they did share a few basic design elements.

"Obviously, in the early stages there was very little in the way of computer-generated work," Cooney says. "The majority of the posters were hand-lettered and printed on newsprint or tissue-based paper if we were plastering them over slightly rougher territory. But the subject matter is really as diverse as the look of the posters. There is nothing predictable, nothing uniform about them."

When asked if the power of the political street poster has dimmed in our computer- generated and homogenised present, he says the art form is still very much alive but that its power and exuberance depend on the location - and the specific social struggles - being experienced by the communities where it's produced.

"In Australia, which has a strong street-poster culture, there has been some institutionalisation of squeegee art," he says. "But the gentrification process, and the constant policing of walls, has put a bit of a dampener on free expression."

The same couldn't be said for the proliferation of rock poster art in recent times, which has skyrocketed in popularity and collectability. Beyond the Pale founder John Harris has forged a career selling great rock poster art out of his St Kilda showroom, spotting the talent of new generations of Australian poster artists and securing commissions from some of the biggest names in the business (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Soundgarden, Queens of the Stone Age).

A plumber by trade, a visit to a rock-poster exhibition in San Francisco in the early 90s changed Harris' career path. Fascinated by what he saw, he snapped up 35 posters on the spot and shipped them to Melbourne. After selling the lot to interested friends and family, he called the gallery, ordered another 70 posters, and promptly sold those too. For Harris, it was a sign to down the plumbing tools.

After initially focusing on imported works, Harris began commissioning local talents. Beyond The Pale now boasts an Australian stable that includes some of the best poster artists in the world. Harris describes Perth's Ken Taylor as "absolutely top of the food chain and massively in demand", while Joe Whyte is another success story.

Between the two, they carried off one of Beyond the Pale's biggest coups - a poster for a Rolling Stones concert at Slane Castle in Ireland.

But the commission didn't come without headaches. "We sent off a few 'roughs' of a sexy red-haired Irish girl in front of Slane Castle, what we thought they'd expect, and they came back and said 'Oh no, we don't want to play the 'sex' card," Harris recalls.

"We were like, 'What? The Stones don't want sex?' But they wanted something really Celtic. We ended up doing something based on the Book of Kells, sent it off and didn't hear a damn thing for months. Days before the show, I came home from the pub with my wife and the phone rang from New York: 'John, can we finish off that poster?' I freaked out. Because it was the Stones, everyone pulled out all stops to get it done. We had a midday deadline to deliver the posters. We got them there about a quarter to 12."

While a lot of contemporary practitioners draw on the great psychedelic art of the 1960s for inspiration, Harris believes an excess of detail and technical wizardry does not automatically make for a great rock poster.

"Sometimes artists need to learn when to stop," he laughs. "You have to be able to look at a poster and say 'Ok, it's finished now'. Sometimes the actual information - the tour dates, the venue - can get a little bit lost in the design."

Anarchy, Rock & Ink opens at Fremantle Arts Centre on Friday at 6.30pm and runs until September 15.