Rock artist
Jeff Holland and the propaganda of pop
by Jeff Stratton

If Jeff Holland's landlord was the type to disdain holes in the walls of his tenant's house, Holland might well be homeless right now. As a computer cartographer with the Open Space department in Boulder and a frequent traveler to the desert Southwest, one wall of his home is understandably dedicated to a huge topographic map of Utah. But almost every other square inch of wall space in Holland's east Boulder two-story farmhouse is obscured behind hundreds of colorful posters, most bold announcements of local rock concerts. Requiring an average of four thumbtacks each, that's a lot of holes.

Most of the posters lining the walls are of his own creation, and the rest are the work of other rock poster artists, all based, essentially, on the idea of using graphics to describe sound. Art and music are virtually inseparable for Holland.

"When I was a young guy, it was always LPs that I'd pick up," remembers the 41-year old artist. "I would spend the first couple listens totally absorbing every nuance of everything that was involved in that cover, and that would help me understand what was being communicated."

He was also fascinated with maps, and when he ended up studying geography and fine art in college, those twin interests dovetailed into a cartography career. Today, his full-time occupation finds him designing maps and trail signs for the City of Boulder. But a decade ago, Holland put his mind to designing flyers and leaflets to promote - on his own time - various concerts coming to the Boulder area that he deemed interesting. A life-long music freak and diehard record collector, his tastes are anything but predictable. And as a long-time area resident, Holland is a cultural barometer of sorts.

"Who else in Boulder worships the triumvirate of John Coltrane, Neil Young and The Aphex Twin?" quizzes Holland, eyebrow raised. "It's me. Those three guys are up there at the top, and I don't really understand why, because they're not really related in any way."

It is a difficult orientation to explain, and part of Holland's work is the discovery of what lies beneath the motivations.

"What am I trying to think here?" is a frequent Holland refrain when he comes up against a wall discussing the "why" of his work. "I don't even know what I'm doing. I'm not even sure why I do this - I feel like I have to, it's a compulsion. Not like a sickness; it's just a need. Creativity is my god.

"I like the idea of iconifying, if that's a word. Taking an image and breaking down the components. That's what the posters have been about - trying to capture what each band is about, using an attractive graphic that communicates to the audience you're trying to communicate with. The intent was to have coded graphics, to intentionally exclude others, not to have mass appeal. Frequently, the imagery or subjects have multiple levels of meaning, which, depending on your reference, sub-cultural awareness or musical knowledge, you (either) 'get' or you don't," Holland reveals. "One of the interesting things to ponder is how vastly different cultural periods and places have produced similar imagery over time. The human mind gravitates to favorite icons and symbols, regardless of their true meaning, and veneers the contents of their own time and place. Folks look back to the '60s rock posters to capture the feeling of 'Love, Peace and Experimentation.' Now, it's a little harder to take that seriously. Hopefully, the stuff I'm making will reflect the '90s version of the Apocalypse - technological acceleration, fragmentation and a damn good time at the end of the century."

Earlier, as a squall of dust blew across East Boulder and the skies darkened outside of Holland's living room window, the screens of his big computer monitors flickered behind him and he offered up this encapsulated philosophy: "My saying is 'spirituality through technology.'"

In keeping with that mantra, Holland's art exists forever, indelibly woven into the invisible ribbon of cyberspace. His Cryptographics company, which he began in 1987, is the entity that he uses to publish his posters. On the Cryptographics Website (see sidebar) is an extensive resource library peeking into all realms of poster art, the basics of silk-screening and articles about the artwork, as well as an on-line gallery that allows would-be consumers to order posters directly from the site. A quick perusal reveals his interest in symbolism and glyphs.

Holland's work is all about icons, and the recurring themes that can be spotted in his poster art he jokingly sums up as "hot-rod cars, half-naked women and petroglyphs." Those are all present. His love of cars comes from spending time in Detroit. "Cars are the statement of American art," he claims. Now, one of his favorite pastimes is traveling down Hwy. 93 to the long, flat Bandimere Speedway, hidden against the hogback ridge outside of Morrison. After photographing the stock cars, dragsters and nitro-fueled hotrods, he develops the film, photocopies the prints and manipulates the resulting images for inclusion in posters.

The half-naked woman motif stems probably from a typical teenage boyhood and an addiction to comic books. Some of the neon-hued, cartoonish posters adorning his walls, by artists like Frank Kozik from Texas or "Coop" from California, feature super-stylized, over-sexualized women. Even today, shelves in Holland's home buckle under the weight of fat Japanimation catalogs and colorful stacks of anime rags. "I have a complete collection of the early Zap comics," Holland notes. "Gilbert Sheldon's Furry Freak Brothers were actually my favorite. I loved comics, especially Mad magazine, as a kid; not even understanding the references, just the drawings."

In southern New Mexico, Holland's maps took him to the Mimbres Valley, where cave paintings, pottery and petroglyphs captivated him. "I have a lot of respect for Native American stuff," says the collector of art rock as well as rock art. "Not just because it's quasi-mystical, but because it's different."

There's a photo of Holland tacked to a wall in his home that sums up several aspects of his life and flirtation with being 'different": In a typical Boulder outdoorsy pose, he's pictured paddling a canoe with a couple kids aboard, his brown hair tousled as water rushes behind him. He's wearing a beaming grin and a t-shirt with the petroglyph-like symbol belonging to the underground electronic artist known as The Aphex Twin - just like the coded images he incorporates within his own poster art.

Coded imagery suggests things to Holland, inside of his mind, where he makes connections that manifest themselves in ink. The fact that the meanings are often hidden (even from himself) make the art that much more interesting, and to watch Holland, surrounded by computers, comic books and stereo equipment, pulling various inspirations from everything scattered around him is almost magical.

His posters incorporate large amounts of text, and Holland takes care to work them in or around the central image or object. A speech-like pattern often emerges. His best work embraces the premises of semiology and the contextualization of symbols, because even though these are rock concert posters, they may well mean something more. Holland is equally erudite discussing registration, ink, color separations, emulsions and acetates, software and silkscreens as he is at delving deeply into self-analysis, attempting to uncover the presence of the signified via the signifier. It's this communication between meaning and form that guides Holland's art. It grows from his realization that every piece of music (and by extension, every live music performance) comes equipped with its own set of myths and symbols, a separate message that casts some sort of tint on the music that's to be heard. There's no way to enter into the experience without some pre-conceptions, and Holland is in charge of manufacturing and controlling those secret connotations.

Of course, Holland's art is public; it's meant to exist in the same context as an advertisement, and is noteworthy because it will always keep a temporal lock on one specific occurrence.

"All the poster artists have tried to mark time with something," explains Holland. "The intent is just to give something that's collectible and fun to the limited audience who understands what's going on. When I was a kid, I had some Fillmore originals, The Dead and The Jefferson Airplane up in my room ... all stapled and tacked. Stanley Mouse was my favorite." The San Francisco wave of rock poster art "laid the foundation," Holland agrees, "but there's a lot more that's happened since."

Most of that centers around artists like Kozik, Coop, Psychic Sparkplug and several other San Francisco-based designers. The last seven years or so have seen computer technology making this kind of art more available to the average artist. The new software, new design ideas and emphasis on fonts and type wound up being used in the daring designs and bold imagery of rave flyers, which rode easily on the futuristic wave. That caught Holland's eye, who was already working independently toward a similar end. "I was using fluorescent colors before I'd even heard of Kozik," Holland boasts on his Website. The rock poster establishment has recently recognized his talent as well. A Kozik fan page lists a Cryptographics link with the tag, "A site by up-and-coming artist Jeff Holland ... The Kozik of the future?"

Holland certainly has the credentials and pedigree to claim insider status when it comes to music history. He doesn't need to go backward to do research - he was there. The sense of iconography and insight into his extensive rock knowledge is apparent when Holland relates an early record-buying experience.

"When the first Led Zeppelin album came out - I already knew of the Yardbirds - I picked up the album simply because of that really cool graphic. I saw it and said, 'I bet this band is gonna be good, because it's got this cover that shows the Hindenberg crashing,'" he recalls. Attracted to bold statements like that one, it's no surprise to find that he's concerned with preserving graffiti in Boulder - a minority position if there ever was one.

"Working in the parks is kind of ironic," he admits. "I don't see graffiti as a threat and the demise of society the way everyone else seems to. I see really creative lettering styles and graphics. If you leave graffiti up on the walls it'll take away the illicit nature of it, and if it's around 50 or 100 years from now, it could be a historical referent."

Holland's work can have the same purpose, though he admits that was far from the original intent.

"When I started, it was about, 'I just love this band and I want to do something for them," he continues. "It hadn't occurred to me that I could cover my bar tab and get some friends in, the whole bit. So that turned out to be real cool. It struck me as the pinnacle of having access to your own habits. The posters actually do two things: they help out the bands, and I'm hoping people will turn out to the show based on their curiosity."

Album cover and poster art is only briefly allowed into the domain of serious art consideration. Every once in a while, Holland watches while the two intersect.

"I started out chasing Serious Art's tail and found that it was a lot more rewarding to get stuff up on the streets than playing art gallery politics," tells Holland of his decision to go for the public arena. Two years ago, he held a poster art show of his stuff at Caffe Mars; he now has a goal of a larger-scale exhibition, bringing a focus on the current scene including artists Kozik, Coop, Ward Sutton, Psychic Sparkplug, and himself. "I'm game to try to pull this together," he says. Some of his other prints are for sale at Boulder's Bart's CD Cellar and Wax Trax. "If you buy this now, it'll be worth something when you get old," he winks, pointing to seminal San Francisco landmarks by Stanley Mouse that are worth thousands.

"Anything of limited release pertaining to some event will be interesting sooner or later," predicts Holland.

One of his most recent projects ties the art and music realm even tighter together - he's not just responsible for the art direction but for a portion of the music as well on a new CD called Obliq Recordings. On the collection of sonic tapestries by experimental/ambient/electronic artists, a Holland track under the name Ted Sturgeon is a cover of the Dr. Demento classic "They're Coming To Take Me Away." Holland is extremely proud of the disc; it represents the culmination of years of work and the convergence of passions for art and music.

In his living room Holland keeps the heavy coffeetable book The Art Of Rock, full of color plates of some of the finest examples of music-related art through the years. He leafs through illustrations by important figures like Roger Dean (famous for his logo and artwork for the '70s prog-rock band Yes) and Peter Saville (who incorporated Italian futurism and constructivism into his designs for Joy Division and New Order sleeves). "Someday, I hope to be in there. I'm just learning now," he says earnestly. "If I keep doing this, five years from now I'll be a better artist than I am. It's bringing in some money already; the Internet sales are consistent. In two years I hope to be able to pull it off full time."

In the meantime, he hopes people see his posters and make the connection that he makes - this poster looks cool, so it stands to reason that the music must be good, too. Then Holland's love of the music can rub off on others.

"I'm hoping that I have an effect. I'm hoping people will turn out to the shows based on curiosity. And I'm beginning to think that I have an influence - I've been doing it long enough. And I'm experimenting. I'm learning about what this all means, too."

He scratches his beard and thumbs through a stack of old records.

"I'd like to think that later, I'll finally figure out what I'm doing so that I can say what it was."