Word Screen Park
Kevin McMahon
Forming: the early days of L.A. punk

A review of Forming: The Early Days of L.A. Punk, an exhibition at Track 16 Gallery, April 10 through June 4, 1999 curated by Exene Cervenka, Susan Martin, Kristine McKenna, Pilar Perez, Viggo Martensen and John Roecker; and a catalog of the same name, published by Smart Art Press, with essays by Claude Bessey, Chris Morris, McKenna, Sean Carrillo, and Cervenka and John Doe.

In retrospect, it seems that this was motivated not by concern for this particular scene—I'd missed it; I had no personal connection—or the general issue of punk "authenticity," but by a concern with the problem of discerning histories from photocopied concert flyers, home-made pins, and other non-standard historical documents.


Here’s a problem: What do you do with artifacts of nihilist martyrs of the early L.A. punk scene? Except for the Penelope Spheeris documentary Decline of Western Civilization, the wider world might not be aware that such a cultural moment ever took place.

True to it’s mission of engaging the most extraordinary oddball projects, the private Santa Monica Kunsthalle, Track 16, has filled its walls to the stuffing point with photocopied flyers, snapshots, play lists, album covers, manuscripts, guitars, publicity photos, buttons, proto-’zines, videos  … mostly from the collection of an indispensable archivist John Roecker. Material is grouped by individual bands, or specific places or people. Issues of long-defunct magazines you’ve never heard of are on display, with original artwork--photos, drawings, collages. In the back room, there are new paintings and sculptures and prints by veteran scene participants.

Much of the material is of compelling visual interest, and, as such, seems completely at home on the walls otherwise occupied by works of Man Ray and Manuel Ocampo. The photo of Johanna Went in her “Raging Bull”-Nun costume is probably the masterpiece of wit of the show. Michael Uhlenkott’s faux-Eastern Europe kitsch paintings make you wish for more. Gary Panter’s black & white logo for the Screamers, his caricatures of Pee-Wee Herman and examples of his cartoon Jimbo betray high-strung delicacy that remains fresh and winning.

Where Panter’s work is all harried sweetness, Raymond Pettibon’s is a celebration of wretchedness. His work is about as unpleasant as visual art can be, and it is probably the most characteristic and enduring product of the whole L.A. scene. He made covers and announcements for everybody, and his work pops up everywhere. With typical self-conscious sourness, one of his most striking drawings features a hospitalized figure moaning “Turrrnnn offf [the radio I don’t want to listen to] muusic.”

But the real value of the exhibit is the opportunity to see works that are not by famous names. There are some banners that The Weirdoes made about a decade before Matt Mullican’s or Mike Kelley’s. A vitrine next to the Weirdoes’ installation contained probably the most bizarre object in the whole exhibition: an Alka-Seltzer package skewered by two safety pins--the authenticity of which was vouchsafed by the brown rust stains on the foil. Whether it is a cause for celebration or a cause for concern, the fact that someone has preserved this this artifact for twenty years is undeniably wonderful. One uncredited and particularly endearing specimen of the ubiquitous ransom-note collage style—a concert announcement for The Bags—featured a head of Ann Landers out of which emerged a word balloon: “Yes kids, I’m a full-blown Bag-hag too!” The same flyer, à propos nothing, paraded the inapposite query “Why is this disturbing?”

While the opportunity to see this material is all for the good, the context raises once again dingy questions of the relationship between popular culture and art culture. Particularly relevant here is the apparent durability of the special dispensation art culture continues to grant to the punk movement. Why an extremely short-lived, highly ephemeral project of irritating music should continue to be the art world’s favorite genre? Especially in its L.A. variant, which was disdainful of the arty and intellectual to the point of primitivism? I suspect the explanation lies in the ease with which punk lends itself to two different characterizations:

1. Punk as art. The notion is of punk as a popular culture expression of attitudes originating in loftier spheres, especially dada, pop art and the Situationists. Also there is the notion of artists deliberately declassing themselves, appearing as popular entertainers, which is accepted as a venerable modernist trend.

2. Punk as rebellion. The notion of punk as an expression of the discontent of the masses. Emphasizing the economic and political context; stressing  the non-art, non-commercial, non-big-name production. A number of academics have made their careers milking this idea.

The two modalities underwrite events such as Forming. And explain why an exhibition devoted to Elvis or Fleetwood Mac or Guns ‘N’ Roses is less likely (except as a gesture of insolence itself).

The inevitable objection—This doesn’t have anything to do with punk!—is probably moot. At the risk of promoting a third modality, I would suggest that this is not necessarily revisionism. Is it wrong to see the whole ethos of punk as complicity with inauthenticity? Wasn’t the earnest and the passionate what was being trashed? And so, isn’t any attempt to designate a practice “authentic” as opposed to “derivative” misguided?

Purists who scoff at Track 16’s appropriation of their values should drive a few miles east, to the Silverlake landmark You Have Bad Taste. There, installed behind ratty chicken wire, one finds an indisputably non-high-art display of some of the same Devo suits and Darby Crash photos as at Track 16. The difference being that YHBT is a retail store, and the shrine is an element of its effort to market cheesy juvenile novelty items as necessary accoutrements of a hipster lifestyle. YHBT is wonderful, but the idea that it is more virtuous than Track 16 is baloney.

In the catalog accompanying the exhibition—the latest in a tradition of extremely well-produced, modestly-priced, graphically snappy catalogs from the Smart Art Press—these issues are churned up without being especially well-treated.

Where the exhibition was organized by band, the catalog is organized around essays. This suggests a rejection of vulgar fandom in favor of intellectual consumption, and the results are, as might be expected, dismal. In place of history we get the tropes that come linked like leeches to any text about rock music: the notorious police incident, the great band that never recorded, the joke “that would prove chillingly apt,” performers who were “drunk and in tears” and so on. Some contributors have the grace to be sheepish; others aren’t sheepish enough.

The litany of put-downs—of studio rock, hippies, new wave, KC and the Sunshine Band, etc.—do not come off so well, here, being larded with self-examinations, critical evaluations and reminiscences that are so fatuously nostalgic, glamour-mongering, and self-promoting that the overall tone dips from Rolling Stone to high school yearbook inscription.

I can’t imagine what any of this means--if it can mean anything at all--to someone with no prior awareness. In the catalog, Cervenka jokes that the lasting contribution of punk to world culture consists of “fucked-up hair.” Indeed. Every place on earth with record stores and access to magazines had its punks, and has them now. Punk--like its Seventies opposite, Disco--endures as global folklore: perhaps unrelated to contexts and intentions of two decades ago, but an attitude and musical and visual style with an enduring usefulness. But that doesn’t explain what we are supposed to make of the material in Forming.

It’s probably fair to see Forming as an example in the trend toward exhibitions organized under the pretext of local history. Snapshots of unknowns, in long-vanished venues, playing unrecorded music, reciting unpublished words, engaged in long-dead political struggles. What remains isn’t music, a performance, or a life but a name, a newspaper clipping, and an acknowledgement by somebody who couldn’t have been there that you accomplished something worth remembering.

While such exhibitions necessarily take the form of an claim for the originality and significance of the works produced within the milieu, the performances, the recordings and the visual artifacts are actually demoted by the context to the status of pretexts. The irony of Forming is not the parochial one of sentimentalizing nihilism, but the ubiquitous one of nullification of the work it purports to celebrate.

It has nothing to do with any accomplishment; it has everything to do with remembering ones youth. In this sense, perhaps, it tells a truth about the present, even if it is unreliable about the past. The song “Code Blue, by T.S.O.L., one of Forming’s honored bands, consists of a first-person exclamation of a passionate desire to have frequent, violent and not very discriminating sexual relations with deceased people. The “Code Blue,” if the lyrics were printable, might provide a suitable epigraph for the whole undertaking of local history.

In both the exhibition and the catalog one finds Ann Summa’s photograph of two people displaying bruises suffered in a 1979 St. Patrick’s Day encounter between the punks and the LAPD. In the catalog, there is a caption coolly seething with references to Viet Nam. In the exhibition, the photograph is accompanied by the spread in Slash magazine devoted to an account of the riot. The Slash captioned the photo “Badges of Honor?” It struck me as delightful and wholly admirable that, in 1979 a contemporary could maintain the skepticism and wit necessary to hazard that interrogative mark. Twenty years later the possibility of irreverence has been, apparently, occluded.

[Image: by Nels Hefty]