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For an intellectually inquisitive, testosterone fueled, bored suburban teenager, punk rock provided the perfect elixir and experiencing Pretty Vacant: The Graphic Language of Punk at the galleries of Moore College of Art & Design is like driving an old Duster down a bumpy cobblestone street into a different time. Posters, flyers, fanzines, pins and more from the collection of Andrew Krivine, function as a visual archive to the punk and post-punk era. The curator, Kaytie Johnson, created a logical structure for the display of the material spanning two gallery spaces. Old TVs showed video footage from the Sex Pistols and in another section a larger projection of various live footage and music videos in an area which will eventually turn into a listening station for 45’s.
Johnson arranged the work geographically with most pieces hung salon style except for the larger posters needing more space. An entire wall chronicles the LA punk hardcore scene which included the Circle Jerks, the Dead Kennedys, Fear, a tiny bit of X, and others. A substantial portion of the collection highlighted British bands and then at times entire walls focused on single bands. As one navigated the space the Buzzcocks were followed by the Sex Pistols and then PIL. Heavy hitters such as Elvis Costello and the Clash commanded significant spaces. A scant amount of space remained for the Jam and the musical genre Ska with the likes of the Specials and the English Beat. The New York scene was relegated to essentially one wall which faced the Clash with apportioned space dedicated to the Talking Heads, the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith and Television. Also, walls devoted to Joy Division which segues into New Order and the Cure. There are sprinklings of other bands such as Siouxsie & the Banshees, Kraftwerk (not typically thought of as a punk band but within the same general time frame) and DEVO.
One can sense very quickly the instrumental role graphic design played in constructing brands for the various bands: from reinforcing the fashions, helping to establish the conceptual identity, to illustrating and defining their underlying issues and themes. Jamie Reid’s cover for the single God Save the Queen, 1977, perhaps the most iconic image of the punk movement, features a two-tone appropriated photograph of the queen that originated from a photograph from the Silver Jubilee portraits by Royal photographer Peter Grugeon. Reid covers her eyes with the text “God Save the Queen” using a mix of fonts and cases, reversing text and backing colors between blue and white. The mouth was covered with the text “Sex Pistols”; cutting and pasting individual letters from a variety of fonts and cases all blue text on cutout white. This image really became the emblem for the movement and along with the band and its music articulated the growing discontent of the working class, their economic plight and the burgeoning anarchist movement.
For the cover of London Calling, another seminal visual of the period, designer Ray Lowry used the now infamous blurry photo taken by Pennie Smith of Paul Simonon, smashing his bass on stage framed on the left by a vertically oriented pink “London” and on the bottom with horizontal green “Calling”. Here the designer has appropriated the cover of the debut album by Elvis Presley with perhaps an equal dose of parody and homage anointing the new Kings on the block.
Effective visual branding is also clear in the case of Joy Division, driven by the nihilistic lyrics and hauntingly beautiful singing of Ian Curtis combined with the seamless driving dirge-like instrumentation packaged eloquently by designer Peter Saville. He appropriated an image of radio waves from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy but reversed the image from black on white to white on black for the iconic cover of the LP Unknown Pleasures. Both the covers of the LP Closer and the 12” single Love will Tear Us Apart featured black and white photographs of Italian Neo classical sculptures from burial monuments; the first on a white background with black text, the latter on a white background with black text. The austere packaging stands as a lasting tribute to the band and singer Ian Curtis who ended his own life.
The exhibition reflects the male dominance of Punk. Aside from the Slits, an all-female band formed in London and fronted by then 14 year old Ari Up, only a handful of other females appeared: Siouxsie Sioux of Souixsie and the Banshees, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Deborah Harry of Blondie, Exene Cervenka of X, Wendy O Williams of the Plasmatics, and of course solo artist Patti Smith. Female artists were few and far between and often marginalized or stereotyped; another reminder of the times.
Fanzines played a crucial role developing communities during this period. Prior to Photoshop and other software tools, many fanzine designers used hand printing, typed text (on a typewriter) or collaged text with cut and paste construction and then photocopying and stapling for graphic design and page layout. Digital tools enable graphic designers to more easily manipulate text and images and access to layering and masking may have affected the look to some extent but essentially graphic designers work with the same fundamentals with or without software. Fanzines were one of the main sources for distributing info about the bands outside of the commercial music magazine market. Now so much is done through fan blogs, online magazine and websites; the conventions and structure of the internet have homogenized the look. Although text still conveys this information generic formatting templates, designed to ease publishing for people unfamiliar with web design, on some level removes the human connection cultivated from the fanzine format: the handmade and in person delivery. The DIY aesthetic really comes through with the exhibited fanzines; often raw and unpolished, especially compared to the graphic design of the commercial side which attempts the same style using a more sophisticated approach. One can see a progression on the covers of Punk Magazine from the early black and white covers to color with the cost rising from the early 50 cents per issue to eventually over a $1 per issue.
Another unique outcome of the exhibit is appreciating the sense of reverence the collector has for his subject and the fact this exhibition is indeed attributed to one person’s collection. The sheer volume of material is quite extraordinary and one can clearly see evidence of Krivine’s involvement in the scene. There is a poster of the early Buzzcocks signed by Pete Shelly and Howard Devoto who later left the band to form Magazine. Krivine also has a Television flyer signed by all of its members, among other examples. Gabrielle Lavin, the gallery manager mentioned that the display represented a small portion of the overall collection.
The exhibition encompasses a wide range of artists from the period with a proper allocation of space based on importance but definitely weighted across the pond on the British bands and perhaps a little light on the New York Scene. Also, I felt that Iggy Pop got short shrift as far as his importance, although the exhibit included a fascinating flyer from a show on Halloween at VCU from 1981. This obviously could be a circumstance of the collector’s tastes and also curatorial decision making. Overall, I felt the breadth of material successfully reflected and encapsulated the period spanning from the mid 70’s to the early 80’s.
Framed around the graphic design of the period with its postmodern tendencies including Dadaism and appropriation, the collection looks to illuminate the subsequent influence and lasting impact it made on visual design and the visual arts (Barbara Kruger comes to mind). Ultimately, the reach of the exhibition extends beyond just the imagery into a number of intersecting issues: the punk movement itself, the music and the philosophy, the imagery associated with the movement, the imagery made pre-software, the collection and the relationship of the collector to the objects, the display of the objects and of course let’s not forget nostalgia.