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'Days of Punk' Captures Chaotic Time and Place

April 30, 1999|CLAUDINE ISE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At Track 16 Gallery, "Forming: The Early Days of L.A. Punk" charts (to steal a phrase from Situationist filmmaker Guy Debord) the passage of a few people during a rather brief moment in time. So brief, in fact, that by the time the mainstream music industry picked up L.A. punk on its radar screen, this iconoclastic "anti-movement" already had beaten a hasty retreat.

How, then, does one go about organizing a punk-rock retrospective when punk's central object--the music itself, heard live in dank, stinky clubs like the Masque or the Hong Kong Cafe--no longer exists in its original context? How do you reconstruct a watershed cultural moment that had to be lived through to be truly understood?

Exhibition curators John Roecker, Exene Cervenka, Kristine McKenna, Pilar Perez, Susan Martin and Viggo Mortensen have made "Forming" first and foremost a fan's exhibition, filling it with objects that only the truly devoted would bother saving: battered demo tapes, telephone pole fliers, scrawled set lists, the Masque's banged-up and graffiti-strewn door, Cervenka's fake diamond tiara, even stray candy wrappers.

The exhibition is structured around a series of memorabilia-covered, shrine-like wall installations and historical timelines (written by Roecker and Sherri Schott-laender), which give the gallery the chaotic feel of a teenager's bedroom. Former club owner and current KROQ-FM (106.7) deejay Rodney Bingenheimer (the Dick Clark of L.A.'s alternative music scene) gets star treatment, along with trailblazing punk bands X, Black Flag, Fear, the Germs and countless others.

What makes this exhibition much more than a trip down memory lane, however, is its organizers' successful efforts to situate punk in terms of other alternative cultural practices in L.A. at the time. The inclusion of elaborate collage-diaries by Cervenka (which themselves embody punk's signature cut-and-paste aesthetic), Black Flag album cover illustrations by Raymond Pettibon and photographs of way out-there performances by Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch, the Kipper Kids and Johanna Went, makes the cross-pollination between the worlds of art and punk explicit.

Incisive catalog essays by McKenna and Sean Carillo provide overviews of punk aesthetics and the importance of East L.A. to the punk scene, respectively. McKenna also makes crucial connections between punk and its Dada and Situationist precursors, while Carillo foregrounds the links between punk culture and related goings-on at art venues like LACE, LAICA, Self-Help Graphics and Beyond Baroque.

For an "anti-movement" that prided itself on its outsider status, the punk scene fostered a remarkably strong sense of community among its inner core. Corny as it sounds, this sense of belonging is probably what makes punk most worth remembering for those disaffected outcasts, many of whom, over two decades later, have highly regarded careers as artists, curators, actors, journalists and graphic designers.

* Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-4678, through June 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

*

Ambi-Artistic: Although she is right-handed, Seattle-based artist Pam Keeley draws with both hands at once, an unusual technique that combines controlled lines and shading with looser forms of gestural improvisation. At Gallery Soolip, Keeley's spindly pencil lines unwind like spools of thread cast across wheat or cream-colored sheets of paper. Her mixed-media drawings and paintings recall the art of children or the insane, at times rather self-consciously so.

Androgynous, wraith-like figures, disembodied heads and hollow-eyed visages emerge, sometimes just barely, only to trail off once again into incoherent scratches and scrawls. Some are blotted out with white, cream, or pink paint; others are smudged or partially erased.

These peculiar beings appear at once aged and infantile, male and female. Sometimes, several figures are connected by a thin, umbilical-like tendril, other times a single body holds two people at once, like Siamese twins.

Despite--or perhaps because of--all the smears, scribbly lines, erasures, blots and diffident scrawls, Keeley's drawings feel somewhat overly refined, the messiness carefully stylized to achieve maximum aphasiac effect. This is only heightened by the artist's heavy-handed incorporation of textual wordplay.

Phrases freighted with social import, such as "social security," "turn of the century" or "pledge of allegiance" are stenciled across the drawings and then partially painted out to reveal new words and meanings. From "pledge of allegiance," for example, Keeley locates "paean," "fag" and "lie," among other loaded terms. Similarly, the phrase "legal tender" yields words like "lend," "alter" and "lead."

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