The last time the art of Gary Panter was featured in Los Angeles was less than a year ago, when his virtuosic and groundbreaking Jimbo — the postapocalyptic Tintin-on-nitrous-and-steroids slacker whose adventures were originally a staple of the L.A. punk-era zine Slash — was included in MOCA’s half of the “Masters of American Comics” exhibit, a show that garnered considerable positive press and inched forward the general acceptance of comics as a legitimate artistic medium (whatever that means). Panter’s inclusion, while absolutely unimpeachable on aesthetic or historical grounds, was never a foregone conclusion — the show’s brief roster had numerous glaring omissions, and Panter’s work still provokes flurries of disapproval from anal geeks for his deliberately scraggy line and his complex and fragmented literary voice.
As the show was about to open in Manhattan’s Jewish Museum and the Newark Museum in New Jersey (this time sans the art of co-organizer Art Spiegelman), Panter was preparing to return to L.A. for his current exhibition of paintings and drawings at Billy Shire Fine Arts in Culver City. Unlike many comic artists, Panter had a happy and productive art-school experience, in the early ’70s at East Texas State, where he studied under Lee Baxter Davis — an idiosyncratic regional artist who has been a major influence on several generations of cartoon-friendly painters, including Georganne Deen, Christian Schumann and Trenton Doyle Hancock. I spoke with Panter a couple of days before the opening, and asked him if he had been making traditional objets d’art all along.
“I’ve always been painting. I’ve had years when I didn’t finish paintings — there were times when I was working on 20 paper paintings for like eight years and then I finished them all in one year,” he answered, from his Brooklyn home studio. “But I’ve always been painting, showing in alternate spaces or friends’ spaces. I was with Gracie Mansion Gallery in New York for a while, and then she went out of business. A couple of years ago, I had a show in Tokyo, and I had a show in Dallas, and then the one at Sandra Gering in New York, and now Billy’s show, and then one in St. Louis in October . . . that’s all in two or three years. I actually have accidentally been making a living doing art for a couple of years. That’s more fun than illustration.”
While his greatest impact has been in the world of comics, Panter’s distinctive graphic style made him a sought-after name talent in the design community (and spawned numerous imitators). He’s also released albums of quirky experimental music, was behind one of the earliest and still-best Web animation series (“Pink Donkey and the Fly” — viewable at Cartoon Network’s Web site), and recently collaborated with Fillmore East veteran Joshua White on a 21st-century version of the psychedelic light show. Nevertheless, his main claim to actual fame remains his role as the Emmy-winning designer of Pee-wee’s Playhouse (and 10,000 subsequent commercial tie-ins).
The late-’80s mutant kiddie show’s recent inclusion in Adult Swim’s cutting-edge programming block on late-night Cartoon Network (them again!) has sparked a resurgence of Pee-wee-mania among the DMT-pickled youth demographic to which Adult Swim caters (as well as mature intellectual tastemakers such as myself). Watching it reminds me of how utterly improbable the Pee-wee phenomenon was the first time around — a whole slew of surreally distorted pop-culture tropes that had been circulating in the postpunk underground (the Del Rubio Triplets?!) suddenly erupting into the consciousness of mainstream America. And not through hipsters or any intelligentsia, but out of the mouths of millions of secret-word-screaming babes. It was a glitch in the time/space/pop-culture continuum that is just now coming to fruition.
These same warped tykes are now in their 20s. “My students at the School for Visual Arts,” Panter comments, but also the constituents of the recent youthquake of cartoonish psychedelic-art mayhem — as seen in the whole Providence, Rhode Island, Fort Thunder/paperrad/dearraindrop scene (for whose current RISD Museum retrospective catalog, Wunderground, Panter wrote an introduction) and in such vibrant new comix venues as Kramer’s Ergot. The predictably stunning just-released sixth issue of Sammy Harkham’s book-size anthology title features Panter’s “Dal Tokyo” (a monthly strip that normally appears only in the Japanese reggae magazine Riddim) alongside the trippy, visually adventurous work of C.F., Marc Bell, Matthew Thurber and a dozen more of Panter’s graphic-narrative godchildren.
There has also emerged a restless generation of art-school students and recent graduates with strong affinities both to Panter’s polyglot visual iconoclasm and to his Renaissancey disregard for specialization. Pee-wee’s legacy runs deep. “Paul [Reubens, CalArts alum and Pee-wee channeler] and I just sold a pilot to Adult Swim for a new Pee-wee cartoon!” reveals Panter.
“Excellent!” I retort.
“Yeah. And what we pitched to them was: Earth is destroyed, Pee-wee’s playhouse is destroyed, and all the characters mutate, and Pee-wee wakes up and it’s 1999 — far in the future — and he hates them all. There’s also a Pee-wee movie script Paul and I wrote years ago that he rewrote with John Paragon and some other people, and it’s a lot funnier now and he’s pitching it. I’m ready to go to work on Pee-wee stuff. I really like the idea of reaching kids on farms. The fact that I could find the Mothers of Invention at the local drugstore — that was pretty amazing. And you want to keep that kind of thing happening. You know, if you have to have a job, it’s a pretty fun job. But I wanted to be a painter all my life, and I’m still painting away.”
Panter’s recent acrylics on canvas and paper on display at BSFA are literally dazzling, built up over shimmering Op plaids that wallpaper the retina like a mescaline-fueled cyberspace update of Paul Klee’s lyrical Bauhaus color grids. And, like Klee, Panter’s idealized geometric grounds are populated by a seemingly endless array of peculiar entities — robots, dinosaurs, cowboys, gravediggers, aliens, he-men and swimsuit babes, anthropomorphic watermelons, Old Testament prophets, and a slew of funny animals, from a gleeful pink whale to a drowsy sax-playing parrot. And that’s just the identifiable ones.
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The exhibit — Panter’s first gallery show in L.A. since a two-man exhibition with his father at Shire’s La Luz de Jesus gallery in 1992 — is fleshed out with a selection of the artist’s equally masterful and fragmentary ink drawings, plus a recent series of one-of-a-kind hand-decorated heirloom dishes (which, at $125 a pop, are the art bargain of the season).
While Panter’s visual vocabulary — off-register appropriations and layered archetypal dingbats rendered with an unerring color sense and confident improvisational line work — has remained intact, it has recently been deployed in increasingly incoherent spatial configurations. His work has always been almost transcendentally flat, but the most accomplished of the new pattern-based works pulverize what semblance of illusionistic landscape remained into a jittery, weightless all-over plane where each goofy pratfall or cryptic architectural fragment is treated as an equivalent event — isolated, recursive and dimensionally indeterminate.
Not to invoke the dread concept of art practice being therapeutic, but the sense I get from these paintings — urgently weaving together some sort of new continuity to accommodate a cascade of discordant pop-mythical fragments — has a distinctly post-9/11 feel. “We went to see the Dada show [at MOMA],” recalls Panter, “and I just loved how crude all this stuff is. It seems like all these 1910 guys — if you go to a Russian Constructivist show or a Dada show or anything, they’re not painting like Van Eyck — most of them are kind of in a hurry. I think my stuff’s trying to be related to that kind of stuff in a way. Maybe it’s just a delusion on my part. But I’ve been feeling good about these paintings for the last couple of years, which has enabled me to move ahead and not spend time just staring at the wall. That’s a good thing.”
GARY PANTER | BILLY SHIRE FINE ARTS, 5790 Washington Blvd., Culver City | (323) 297-0600 | Through October 7