By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Most of the people who responded to punk in its initial, vague ingress into North American cultural consciousness (whether you believe the sweet potato traveled east to west or vice versa) were artists, intellectuals, queers and addicts -- not necessarily all of the above, but already disenfranchised enough from consensus culture to recognize an open window when it came along. Punk was an amorphous thing, and was interpreted in a wide variety of ways -- as can be gleaned from the better recent chronicles of the time (particularly Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk; England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond; and From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World). All kinds of irregular, idiosyncratic modes of self-expression fell under the initial punk umbrella -- most of which had been officially excised by the time of the hardcore Jugend's penetration into the marketplace. The bottom line was the establishment of a Temporary Autonomous Zone (coined by Hakim Bey) where these singular philosophies were free to proliferate in an atmosphere of unsupervised mutual regard. The last thing these punks wanted was to be told by parental types that they were good, important and contributing to society. Or so it seemed.
Flash forward to 20 years later with the Green Day/Rancid/Offspring cartoon punk revival and the weight of the aforementioned best-sellers making those hardcore teenyboppers seem authentic. Veterans of the Los Angeles punk scene that spawned such significant groups as X, Black Flag, the Go-Go's and the Minutemen feel bad that they are being undervalued in the Punk Rock 101 textbooks, and band together to present a sprawling archaeological survey of posters, set lists, snapshots, acetates, 45s and similar ephemera at Tom Patchett's Track 16 Gallery at Bergamot Station, the ostensible center of contemporary high art in Los Angeles. Patchett seems to be trying to atone for his contribution to '80s culture, the unwatchable sitcom Alf, by lending all the legitimacy money can buy to various disenfranchised subcultures.
While this is almost certainly laudable in the case of underrepresented ethnics like Ruben Ortez Torres and Manuel Ocampo, the benevolence starts to tarnish when directed at self-exiled factions like the cranky art gossipmongers of Coagulaand the artists and scenesters of the Masque-era L.A. punk scene represented in "Forming." Expanded from an earlier, more palatably guerrilla-flavored display at Exene Cervenkova's Silver Lake post-punk novelty store You've Got Bad Taste, "Forming" is at once exhaustive and disorganized. Loosely structured by a museologically correct chronology spanning the years 197682 (and displaying such hilarious provenances as "Collection of R. Bingenheimer," "Collection of Belinda Carlisle" or my favorite, "Collection of the Weirdos"), the show wanders off into entire rooms full of peripherally relevant contemporaneous art -- you've seen 80 million Raymond Pettibone drawings, you've seen 'em all -- and finally unravels into a backroom showcase of current objetswhose presence, while kind of charming, is wholly inexplicable.
When I started writing this review, I was tempted to do a "find-and-replace" on my L.A. Weekly review of MOCA's "Out of Actions" (last year's retrospective of performance-art relics), because both possess the same sense of misguided enshrinement of the letter over the spirit. Much like that show, "Forming" attempts to bestow institutional and historical authority on a creative sociological phenomenon whose very raison d'être was to testify to an entirely Other and oppositional form of bestowing meaning on experience, a meaning that recognized neither institutions nor history.
In spite of "Forming"'s evident celebratory intention, the implication of this posthumous official ratification is that punk failed -- it lost and its carcass is displayed on the spikes of the fortress gates as a warning to others who might get ideas. The entire proceedings are thereby tainted with an inescapable and lightly nauseating undertone of hostility. But it's not the "Fuck you" of punk, it's the "Fuck you" of cops. The saddest aspect of this is the fact that the show was organized by players from the original cast. But then, "Forming" is permeated with sadness -- aching with nostalgia for a vanished golden time, endearingly pathetic in its coat of tattered fliers, blurry Polaroids and warped ink-jet on foam-core text panels explaining how it all fits together and why it can never be again.