“Jazz Trio” by Justin Bua
In the mid-90s I drove a van out to California and ended up moving into the top floor of a large, drafty Victorian house in San Francisco that had made it through two major earthquakes and a fire. She was a survivor, and she swayed when the damp west wind screamed over the hill at Alamo Square, blasting down Grove Street and boom, smack into the side of 640 Laguna: Ol’ Wobbly. My room was large, and I took full advantage of all that wall space by letting my inner 13-year old decorate it as he saw fit. That meant posters, baby, and plenty of ’em.
San Francisco is the legendary home of the “rock poster” movement of the 1960s and 70s, and I figured I’d get my mitts on a few of those. Reprints, yes, but the originals were pretty pricey, so I kept looking. At one of the 1,500 stores with posters on Haight Street (lots of mushroom posters, people, LOTS of mushroom posters) I found something that knocked me out: a collection by an artist I’d never seen before. This alone was unusual.
I look at art, illustrations, cartoons and all types of graphic design constantly. CONSTANTLY. I soak it up, noticing it all even when I’m not paying attention. For something to catch my eye, overloaded as it is like Mr. Creosote in the Monty Python flick just before he eats the dessert wafer, well… a poster would have to be pretty good. These posters were excellent. The composition, the colors, the mood, even the paper they were printed on – everything was top-notch. I was delighted. I was mesmerized. I had to have one. Fortunately they were in my price range, which was just about big enough to squeeze a gnat through in those days. Man, it was a drag being that broke. The upside was having plenty of free time and all those BYO parties with other budget-constricted neo-bohemian types, but man…. Being broke in a city that swank could be a bummer. The best of times/worst of times, fer sher.
Anyway, I got the poster, and savored the purchase. “Jazz Trio” by Justin Bua. It called to me partly because I had jazz trio on the brain. My roommates and I were into seeing the Charlie Hunter Trio play in SF around that time Yes, they played The Jazz. In those days you could catch them all the time at Cafe du Nord on Market Street for about $5. A deal, to be sure. Plus, we could walk there. Frugal entertainment, I love ya!
Bua is solidly based in the cartoon idiom, and given the formidable quality of his work and of the production of the poster, it felt like fine art to me. It was lyrical, moody and surprised me with its originality and wit. Bua’s an “urban artist.” I know, I know. I don’t like the moniker either, but he comes out of the hip-hop tradition of art. Urban? Have it your way, Dude. In the old days art which affectionately featured city folks was called the Ash Can School. Bua seems influenced by guys like Ernie Barnes, Archibald Motley, Jr., and I’d say a little Thomas Hart Benton too, both accepted as fine artists. The lyrical, exaggerated figures, the rich colors, the obvious fascination with people and what they do: Bua, Benton and Motley all the way.
Check out these dance scenes, one by each artist, and you’ll see what I mean.
“The Twist” by Thomas Hart Benton
“Nightlife” by Archibald Motley
“Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes
“1981” by Justin Bua
Take a look at more of Bua’s work here. And that poster? I’ve still got it rolled up and stored away, ready to be tacked up again in my man cave. Or should I say manchild cave, covered in posters, to be sure.