The West Coast punks are pogoing into town this spring at MCA Denver, Gildar Gallery, the Colorado Photographic Arts Center and other locations, for a series of shows falling under the aegis of Search & Destroy. So-named for the San Francisco 'zine or the '70s), the ring of satellite shows will come to rest Friday night at MCA, where a reception with live music opens to the public at 8 p.m. (music by Modern Witch at 10:30 p.m.).
The main exhibit at MCA, co-curated by Adam Lerner and bay area gallerist Steven Wolf, centers around the milieu of influential artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner. We caught up with Wolf to ask a few questions about the show.
Westword: Why resurrect the West Coast punk ethos now? And what makes the era so compelling in 2012?
Steven Wolf: We decided to organize this show because of the way punk rock has suddenly become a source of energy and inspiration for young artists. They enter the art world from graduate school, with massive student loans and demands from commercial galleries for commodifiable objects, and they are drawn to the anti-career, anti-success, totally amateur character of punk rock.
They also see in punk rock an attractive, authentic desire for rebellion which isn't on the table as a real option today. They also see punk as a lab where kids figured out that they could simply make for themselves what they wanted, and not wait around till they became professionals, which makes sense today as kids have so many great tools to manufacture and distribution their own work.
How was it different from similar movements in London and New York?
It was probably the same in a lot of ways and different as you go up and down the coast. In Los Angeles, and later Orange County, the suburbs played a big roll in defining the form of alienation that punk rock congealed around. Also, there was a bigger latin component with bands like Los Zeros, Los Lobos and The Minutemen. In San Francisco, the intimate geography made it easier to connect the dots between the radical New Genres department at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Mabuhay Gardens in North Beach, where punk first flourished, and beat figures like Allen Ginsberg, who could still be found hanging out at the City Lights bookstore, also in North beach.
Punk was very performative, artistic. One can also speculate that the political activism that blew down a generation from the Berkeley free speech movement somehow made it more possible for Jello Biafra to run for mayor. Define Bruce Conner's role in that world and his significance now, looking back.
We're trying to make the case that, although west coast kids were certainly influenced by the Sex Pistols and clothespin fashion from London, they also had local aesthetic models to draw from, and Conner was one of them. In general, Conner is a romantic with a wise ass way of doing things that harmonizes with punk. His early assemblages, with their torn nylon and rotting trash, project the sense of a decayed expiring culture that permeates punk music and fashion. He was also probably the first fine artist to incorporate pop music into his videos. Breakaway, for instance, which he made with Tony Basil in 1966, is shot and edited like an MTV video. Equally important, Conner hung around the scene, shot pictures for Search and Destroy Magazine, often showed his movies to the kids, and so could impact the scene on a personal level.
Who are some of the other major players who worked in the same milieu?
If we're talking about Conner's milieu, two people I like are Ginsberg and Wallace Berman. Ginsberg was always a friend to artists. On the East coast he helped Patti Smith when she was homeless. On the west coast, he helped fund Search and Destroy Magazine, and his debut ecstatic reading of Howl at the Six Gallery is easy to read as a precedent for punk rock.
In L.A., Berman electrified an underground circle of jazz-loving, junky artists from his home in Topanga Canyon, and he made his collages using an early version of the xerox machine, precisely the technology that fueled the design and dissemination of the punk rock collage flyer.
If you could choose one object or image as definitive of this smorgasbord of shows, what would it be?
One's pretty tough, because you've got punk, its pre-history and the dialogue that followed in its wake, but I'll choose three works from the MCA show.
Biafra by Conner, which shows Jello floating above the stage and seems to embody the recklessness and act of faith that was punk rock.
The Last Supper by Monte Cazazza, a little-known artist from San Francisco who was the only American member of Throbbing Gristle and was considered in his day to be the ne plus ultra of danger and unpredictability.
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And Window Shade by Miranda July, which plays on the irony-drenched post-punk era's fear of punk sincerity.
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