Gear Up for “Rat Fink Revolution: Started With a T-Shirt Now We’re Here” at the Emmanuel Art Gallery, on view through November 17th
Rat Fink Revolution Celebration and Artist Reception on October 13 with special guests Jann Haworth and Trixie RothAlice Crogan | College of Arts & Media Sep 1, 2022
Celebrate the exhibition on Thursday, October 13th at 3pm with an artist talk from Jann Haworth, British-American artist and advocate for feminist rights and co-creator of the famed album cover for the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band". A reception will follow Haworth's talk from 4pm-7pm, with special guest, Trixie Roth, widow of Ed Roth who keeps his memorialize Roth through the Rat Fink Museum in Manti, Utah and annual reunion.
Rat Fink and the Legacy of Ed Roth (1932-2001)
Roth’s artistic beginnings coincide with rise of hot-rod culture in mid-1950’s. He was a bona fide member of “kustom kulture,” the term describing the rebellious scene of mid-century Southern California–– pinstriping and airbrushing cars and building custom fiberglass motorcycles (Roth is attributed to having built the first “trike” three-wheeled motorcycle and the first fiberglass car). Roth also began creating airbrushed designed characters and placing them on t-shirts––an absolute novelty at that time.
It was Roth’s airbrushed character “Rat Fink”, first seen in 1958, that brought Roth to esteem and fame as a graphic artist. Roth described his green, bug-eyed rat cartoon as the “grotesque anti-Mickey Mouse.” As the wholesome Disney character was embraced by the suburban, clean-cut post war era, Roth created an image that better represented the outsiders that he surrounded himself with in his garage. Accordingly, an icon was born, and as his peers began to wear “Rat Fink” on their formerly plain-white t’s, the individualist representation of identity through graphics began.
The mark of Rat Fink became so desired amongst enthusiasts of the scene, that Roth (and now his estate) license the copyrighted likeness of Rat Fink images to artists devoted to keeping the visual legacy of “Big Daddy” alive and seen. These licensed artists form a world-wide community––convening each year at the “Rat Fink Reunion,” a family-type gathering of counter-culture artists and followers of Roth.
To curate the Emmanuel Art Gallery show, CU Denver students, led by gallery director Jeff Lambson, made the trek to 2022 reunion to dive further into an understanding the Rat Fink universe and historical mark left by Roth on graphic art. The students returned to Denver with thoughtfully selected art pieces by both Roth and his contemporaries––poster art, figurines, t-shirts, toilet seats, skateboards, a hot rod, and a trike.
Graphics That Break Convention and an Unruly Attitude that Crosses Culture
Groups often on the margins of a traditional pop culture have embraced the image of Rat Fink as a scrappy outsider who represents those perhaps forgotten about by Saturday-Evening-Post-apple-pie-Americana. Like Rat Fink, these artists have also pushed back against the symbol of Mickey Mouse to powerfully express identity through their art. André Ramos Woodard reappropriates depictions of Black people he finds in the history of American cartooning, saying he “juxtaposes them with photographs that line up more authentically with a Black experience.” Drawing from his experience growing up queer and African-American in the South, he says the low-brow low-brow Rat resonated with him as a rebellious character outside the traditional art world.
Carlos Fresquez, a Chicano artist, activist, and professor as MSU Denver, is one of those whose art and ideology has been influenced by Roth and Rat Fink. On display in the exhibition is his oil on canvas painting, Time Transfixed, depicting Mickey Mouse hiding behind Roth’s grave marker, as Roth is mourned by Speedy Gonzales and “The Brain.”
“Rat Fink to me is the person you don’t want to see or pay attention to, he is the ‘anti,’ the nonconformist,” says Fresquez. “We can’t live in a sugar-coated world that’s false or fake. Rat Fink is the reality.”
Arguably Roth’s most significant impact is how his work unassumingly broke down boundaries between pop-culture and fine art. This effect can be seen in the exhibition through the work of some of the 20th centuries most well-known artists––Andy Warhol, Keith Herring, Takashi Marakami-- and their images that share similar social and artistic mechanisms of Rat Fink.
Jann Haworth was creating art around the same time as Ed Roth in the ‘60s. Like Roth, she encountered push-back from an art world who did not accept her as an artist and used the imagery of Mickey and Minnie in her Pop Art to break down boundaries between the “high art world” and popular culture. As a woman, she was told her art needed to be more masculine and “cast in bronze” to be taken seriously. She smartly replied, “I’ll cast it in cloth.” Haworth is best-known as co-creator of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. She has recreated the soft sculpture “Shirley Temple 2.Oh” from her album cover, especially for this exhibition. Temple famously wears a “Welcome the Rolling Stones” T-shirt in homage to the growing popularity of graphic T-shirts becoming markers of community.
Rat Fink Revolution Open on the Auraria Campus Through November 17th
Whether you visit the Emmanuel Art Gallery as a Roth devotee, as a fan of Denver’s low-rider scene, to view the models that graced the cover a of Beatles album, or want view the iconic Warhol Mickey Mouse, “Rat Fink Revolution is a show for everyone—just as “Big Daddy” would have intended.
Trixie Roth says: “Ed’s desire was to bring happiness.”
Rat Fink Revolution: Started With A T-Shirt, Now We’re Here
When: Now – November 17, 2022 ; Celebration and Reception with artists: Thursday, October 13th, 3pm-7pm
Where: Emmanuel Art Gallery, 1205 10th St, Denver, CO 80204
Exhibition information and car show registration at: emmanuelgallery.org