Pasadena City College is renowned for its lengthy tenure as one of the best community colleges in California, spawning ground for Dennis Cooper and Van Halen (as well as artists Betye Saar and Liz McGrath) and home to the mother of all swap meets. It also boasts a remarkably strong art department, whose faculty includes L.A. Weekly Annual Biennial "Some Paintings" alumni Robin Mitchell, Lynne Berman and Rebecca Morris, short-listers Brian Fahlstrom and Nick Taggert, 2009 COLA awardee David Dimichele, and Brian Tucker, PCC gallery director and curator of last fall's exhibit "Mantong and Protong," by dueling crackpots Richard Shaver and Stanislaw Szukalski.
Tucker's gallery is also the flash point for PCC's highly regarded but little-known Artist in Residence program — an annual weeklong intensive on-campus orgy of art-making, master classes and public lectures now in its 24th year. Previous honored guests include William Wegman, Faith Ringgold, Wayne Thiebaud, Alexis Smith and many other illustrious names from the pantheon of West Coast blue-chip cultural production.
This year's model has a slightly more complex pedigree, encompassing not only gallery and museum exhibitions, but award-winning TV set designs, genre-redefining comic books, commercial illustration (including album covers for Frank Zappa, Ralph Records, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bongwater and Silver Daggers), the revival of psychedelic light shows, and a decades-long trail of lo-fi, weird-ass experimental rock music including collaborations with Bay Area cult proto–post-punkers the Residents.
Whom could I be referring to but Gary Brad Panter, thrice Emmy-encrusted acid-punk Southern gentleman with perhaps the most restlessly inventive graphic line since Paul Klee. Panter was conspicuously absent from the recent Pee-wee Herman reunion tour ("I didn't end up working on the Pee-wee stage show. I wish Paul great success with the show. I've seen photos and the set will be close enough to make fans happy"), but conspicuously conspicuous as a recent featured speaker at the Hammer Museum in conjunction with Crumb's Book of Genesis show, where — in addition to his personal take on the history of 20th-century art — he doled out the best "advice to young artists" I've ever heard: "Smoke pot. Make art. Live long. Make friends. Eat some Mexican food. Listen to Dick El Demasiado's record. Then you'll be OK."
Panter's credibility as a bona fide fine artiste has been on the rise since his inclusion in the historic Hammer/MOCA "Masters of Comic Art" exhibition in 2005, and the two-volume hardcover monograph published by Picturebox (including an essay by me) three years later. "I took my senior class from School of Visual Arts to see the [Basil] Wolverton show and other shows in Chelsea," recalls the underground legend, "and when I introduced myself people at each gallery knew who I was. I still don't have a New York gallery."
The fact that Panter has shows regularly in L.A. (most recently at Steve Turner Contemporary) comes as no big surprise — the artist's signature "ratty line" and archetypal postapocalyptic punk everyman "Jimbo" (and the original incarnation of Pee-wee's Playhouse) emerged during his tenure as design kingpin of the L.A. punk scene.
"I've been aware of his work forever," says Tucker (who — along with illustrator Rick Osaka — put Panter's name up for the residency), "and I have the Screamers fan-club newsletters to prove it. Preparing for this residency, it has astonished me to recollect how many times Gary Panter's art seems to show up in my personal memories. Not just in a general way, reminiscing about punk shows or RAW magazine, but really specific things — calling up some FM station he was being interviewed on to win a copy of his Japan-only LP, Pray for Smurf, that sort of thing. I remember making a chess set out of Pee-wee Herman Shrinky Dinks with my art-school friends."
Panter proved to be an uncontroversial choice, though Tucker isn't surprised.
"There's not much theoretical banter about categories and definitions of art between the faculty at PCC," Tucker observes, "but questions about the relationships between centers and margins, subcultures, mass culture, youth culture, commercial culture and so on are palpable in the classrooms and on the minds of pretty much everybody, just by virtue of the astonishing cross-section of people who turn up at the community college. So to find an artist whose work raises some of those questions 'from within' seems like a great match for PCC. We'll soon find out."
Finding out involves the mounting of an exhibition of Panter's paintings and drawings, including a new, site-specific wall mural, the production of six new etchings and a couple of silk-screen prints, meetings with students, a reprise of his Hammer talk and the presentation of a talk by kindred spirit Bob Zoell – one of the most underrated living L.A. artists. "Bob is a fucking genius — technically and formally," asserts Panter. "His ideas are sincere — even childlike — and he has technical abilities that would make a child dangerous. But he uses his powers for good."
Zoell's art has ranged from typographic tile work at the Wilshire/Vermont Metro station, to fastidiously crafted faux-minimalist gallery paintings, to guerrilla installations of mutant parking signs with poetically ominous messages like "Nobody Understands Me Call the Police" on the streets of early-'80s downtown L.A. But his roots are in commercial design, where he made his mark. "I started following Bob's work in the '60s, when he was an illustrator doing work that was derived from early black and white cartoons. Every time I saw his work in a magazine it seemed to be evolving closer to painting ideas and less to any kind of normal illustration, then he disappeared out of media almost. I met some mutual friends of his and asked about him, and they arranged a meeting."
Zoell picks up the story: "When I saw Gary's work it was an explosion because we were so opposite. I immediately was influenced by how free he was with paint and drawing. All my painting up to this time had been serious analytical formalism. I was going through a divorce of a 20-year marriage, working out of hotels in Europe and sleeping on friends' sofas in L.A. I met Gary and couldn't resist the influence — Dal-Tokyo, Jimbo and the Rozz-Tox Manifesto were amazing in their time, and still are — and the timing couldn't have been better."
Timing is everything, and there's a common suspicion among young artists that they've missed out on the lengthy run of viable subcultures that defined the late 20th century. With the commandeering of street signs and other official public visual space absorbed as a rampant marketing strategy — first for apolitical "street artists" and then our reptilian corporate overlords — I ask Zoell if the contemporary cultural landscape contains the same kinds of gaps in which an artist might operate.
His response is "a big YES! But, of course, the young artist must be in love with his desires and thoughts to want to find those gaps out there. To be aware enough to know you can do what you want (thank you, Marcel Duchamp!). It's like saying the rectangle is exhausted and has no more secrets — which is exactly how postmodernism was born. Not a bad thing, really, but not true. The smart die-hard modernists will always find more, as will any young artist who rejects the rejecters of the galleries, museums, critics and art magazines and finds a venue in the landscape around him."
A startlingly anti-institutional mandate at a time when young artists are scrabbling for any sort of real-world support for their creative impulses, but Panter concurs: "Important messages will leak through the bullshit one way or another."
PASADENA CITY COLLEGE ART GALLERY
1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
GARY PANTER: NEW PLANET
March 15–May 1 | Public lecture by the artist, Mon., March 15, 7 p.m. | Reception, Mon., March 15, 8:30-9:30 p.m. | Related event: Gary Panter presents an artist's talk by Bob Zoell, Wed., March 17, 3 p.m.