A Grateful Culture's Icons : O.C.'s 'Dead on the Wall' Looks at Deadheads Through Their Own Art


Following the Grateful Dead on the band's extensive tours was, according to guitarist Jerry Garcia, one of the last great road adventures a person could have in present-day America.

"You can't hop the freights anymore," Garcia said a few years ago. "But you can still chase the Grateful Dead around."

For legions of fans, known as Deadheads, that option also came to an end after Garcia's death in August and the subsequent dissolution of the band, which formed in 1965.

Say what you will about Deadheads--they've heard it all--but they represent an enduring subculture in their near-religious devotion to the band.

That subculture, including its art, memorabilia and music, is examined through the eyes of its members in the documentary exhibition "Dead on the Wall: Grateful Dead and Deadhead Iconography From 30 Years on the Bus," which opens today at the Huntington Beach Art Center.

One of the exhibit's goals, curator Chris Cole said, "is to help explain the [Deadhead] culture, which is very misunderstood. It's not just about people living out of their vans. There's a lot more to it."

Toward that goal, Cole gathered about 100 items, on loan from fans, including artwork, photographs, clothing, handbills and ticket stubs. Cole, a veteran of more than 40 Grateful Dead performances, works as an aide at the art center and is curating his first exhibit, with education director Tyler Stallings. The exhibit also is intended as a tribute to Garcia.

"We let this show kind of take on its own shape," Cole said, noting that one of the Grateful Dead's hallmarks was the free-form structure of its music. Cole said that his recent appearance on KPFK-FM (90.7) on a weekly radio show devoted to the Dead's music helped spread the word and also lent legitimacy to his cause.

"At first people weren't really sure if they wanted to part with some of this, even temporarily," Stallings said. "It's not like approaching an artist who expects to have his work in a gallery. This was more like asking a Catholic to let us display his cross."

Religion, in fact, is an ongoing theme in the show.

The Deadhead community, as the exhibit points out, represents a strong example of a "popular" religion, based on a common pursuit of mystical experiences through the ritual uses of music, dance and, often, hallucinogens.

Some examples of this religion include the icons and graphic imagery often used by Deadheads in their artwork (the skull and roses, dancing bears and other symbols) and the unabashedly devotional items (a portable shrine called the "suitcase altar," which a group of Deadheads would reassemble in each new hotel room).

"What interested me about this project, as a non-Deadhead, is that most of this artwork came not out of formal training but out of the social setting," Stallings said. "It is an example of a true community-based art form."

Most of the exhibit's items are from Deadheads in Orange County, Cole noted. A collection of paintings by Costa Mesa artist Marc Almera, for example, will be instantly recognizable to most fans because much of his work has been purchased by the Grateful Dead's merchandising company for use on T-shirts and posters.

The distinctive Grateful Dead concert posters on display, by artists such as Rick Griffin and Stanley Mouse, provide examples of art born from the psychedelic influences of the 1960s.

Many of the items on display are examples of the types sold or traded in concert parking lots by Deadheads supporting themselves on tour.

The underlying message of the exhibit can be seen as transportation, whether it be literal (a van plastered with Dead insignias) or cerebral (a huge, floor-to-ceiling tunnel of tie-dyed cloth called the Jerry Garcia Memorial Curtain).

Viewers entering the gallery will encounter a psychedelic mood created through colored lights, a flashing strobe and Grateful Dead music from concert videos chosen to highlight the group's improvisational style.

Additional films, such as the acclaimed documentary "Tie-Died: Rock and Roll's Most Dedicated Fans," will be shown over the course of the exhibition's two-month run.

Although most Deadheads will have seen many of the types of items on display, even the most ardent fans may be impressed with at least two: an original "American Beauty" album cover signed by all the contributing band members, and a collection of postage stamps featuring Garcia's image.

(Although the U.S. hasn't issued any, at least seven nations have honored the guitarist with stamps.) "Dead on the Wall" does not present a complete biography of the band, nor is it meant to.

But through the items on display and the accompanying text, which the curators took mostly from the book "Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads," visitors should be able to gain some insights into the music and appeal of the Dead.

For instance:

* The group's policy of permitting--even encouraging--Deadheads to record concerts was revolutionary and generated intense loyalty among fans. Tape trading and collecting was an integral part of the scene.

* The nomadic Deadheads created town-like settlements in the parking lots before each concert, with bazaar-style vendors hawking a variety of wares, often accompanied by a frenzied drumming circle.

* No two Dead concerts were alike. Their improvisational blend of jazz, blues, rock, electronic and country music prompted many fans to record the songs in the order they were played. These set lists were often put into notebooks, which are also on display in the exhibit.

* "Dead on the Wall" opens today at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. Gallery hours: Fridays-Saturdays, noon-9 p.m.; Sundays, noon-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, noon-6 p.m.; Thursdays, noon-8 p.m. $3. A free opening reception will be tonight from 8 to 11 and will feature the Grateful Dead tribute band Suns of the Dead, a Deadhead car show and two light shows. Cole will give a lecture today at 2 p.m. Through Sept. 1. (714) 374-1650.

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