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An Open Letter

Thanks for everything, Art Chantry -- we can't wait for this week's retrospective show!


Dear Art Chantry,

I don't hold you responsible for "grunge," whatever the hell that was. I mean, I bought some of the albums, sure. Nirvana was great, and I scrounged a copy of Tad's God's Balls solely on your recommendation, and hell, I still listen to it when the leaves turn red and the cold rain falls for days on end. Good stuff. But the last worthwhile album Sub Pop put out was that Wolf Eyes LP, and even that wasn't quite as scorching a ride as the Screamers' stuff. Which, again, thanks for the tip on that band. Jesus Christ, those guys were so far ahead of their time it's just unbelievable that they never put anything out officially. But that's part of the thrill, innit? You gotta dig for the good stuff.

But "grunge." Every time someone says your name, "grunge" isn't far behind it. It's like your personal cross. But I don't believe you set out to create a style of music, fashion, slang, haircut, guitar-distortion tone or commercially marketable "brand" when you made posters and designed album covers for all those Seattle bands. You were just making a living doing something you love, and somehow your personal style became linked with this tsunami of product that was washing over the "youth culture."

Maybe it had something to do with your remarkable productivity. You can really crank out the work, and even though nobody bats a thousand, you're probably flirting with a grand, lifetime-average-wise. You're a Midwesterner when it comes to work ethic, but you're a Renaissance Master when it comes to aesthetic. And that's what all those record labels and bands wanted: beauty on a budget, and with a quick turnaround.

The funny part is, "grunge" devoured itself right out of the market. Every corporate designer and label artist ripped you off left and right for a while there, and by the time Kurt was dead none of those hacks could determine who was who anymore. But man, throw a Chantry-designed poster up on a wall covered with cheap knockoffs and watch the people slow down when they come even with yours. That poster you did for Kristeen Young's recent show in town, the woman's face with the text doing double-duty as the shading for her features? Yeah, that caused people to stop on Delmar -- and it was gone in two days. The people can (and will) steal your posters, and the suits could try to co-opt your look, but none of 'em can match the real thing.

I can tote up the combination of influences (hot-rod culture, Golden Age sci-fi, cheap offset press technology), the ethic (dirty hands equal busy hands), the aesthetic (handmade good, computer useless) and the intention (make something visually striking, then make the next one better), but none of that adds up to the crappy, flash-in-the-pan trend that was grunge. Shit, I've seen the work -- I own your book, Some People Can't Surf. That's not grunge, that's classic: gorgeous design mated with your gruff/sweetheart personality. Your work is unique. People should start calling the look "Chantry," and leave "grunge" just for the music.

Call me. I hear you're involved somehow in the construction of a secret miniature golf course. I'll play you nine holes for a cup of coffee. As ever, I remain your pal, Paul Friswold.

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