Punk. A four-letter declaration that conjures up sights, sounds, and often stenches associated with three guitar chords and gravity defying mohawks. Quite the journey for a word that was never meant to be a label – let alone THE label – for underground music gestating on New York’s Bowery in the mid 70s. (Though depending on your definition, punk originated in NYC about 1974 or in London about 1975.)
In reality, the name referred to a street rag created in 1975 by Legs McNeil, John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn Jr. – imagine a twisted, Lower East Side version of MAD magazine. Originally titled Teenage News, the trio would ultimately opt for a name that had been a slang term coined for young hoods and hustlers. The magazine’s initial objective was also much broader than a certain musical style, let alone a fashion trend. Instead this new movement centered on a shared philosophy – a battle against complacency; a sharp reaction to the increasing blandness of post-hippie America. It’s also been argued that punk was one of the last vestiges of the American counter-culture.
Yet here we are on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a puzzling venue where uptown and downtown clash in the new Costume Institute exhibition, PUNK: Chaos to Couture. The show examines the era’s impact on high fashion from the movement’s birth in the early ‘70s through its continuing influence today. Responsible for spearheading the polished presentation is Andrew Bolton, better known for his intellectual approach to 2011’s critically acclaimed McQueen/Met showing, Savage Beauty.
With Chaos to Couture, the seven galleries are organized around the materials, techniques, and embellishments associated with the anti-establishment style. Themes include New York and London, which touches upon punk’s origin story as a tale of two cities, followed by Clothes for Heroes and four manifestations of the D.I.Y. aesthetic—Hardware, Bricolage, Graffiti and Agitprop, and Destroy. The series of rooms were cleverly transformed, presenting the show as an immerse multimedia, multisensory experience. Period music videos and soundscaping audio techniques are peppered throughout in the hopes of transporting the viewer to decades past.
But sifting through the frivolous exterior, it becomes clear that much of show was an afterthought. Approximately one hundred designs for men and women are on display, though only a relatively small amount of original punk garments are featured. Bolton chose to concentrate heavily on more recent, directional fashion to illustrate how haute couture and ready-to-wear borrow punk’s visual symbols. In theory, connecting the relationship between the gritty concept of “do-it-yourself” and the couture concept of “made-to-measure” could have had remarkable results. Regrettably Bolton did not deliver.
Many are already aware that much of punk’s sartorial sense was steeped in controversy. Visual symbols such as the skull & crossbones, swastikas, pornography, animal bones, graffiti, etc., were appropriated and proudly displayed on old leather jackets and armbands (a few of these symbols would even go on to permeate the modern mainstream). And so rather than lacquer the gallery walls ebony or contort mannequins to flip the bird, why didn’t Bolton explore the anthropological side of the movement? Why were these images used? What was their significance? It would’ve been more stimulating to examine the darker elements of the scene, which eerily mirrored the times. But Chaos to Couture offers little context for the perversely stunning high fashion looks the era inspired. It doesn’t spark discussion of the designers’ intentions. And it certainly doesn’t rationalize the co-opting of an anti-establishment aesthetic – ironically, for garments accessible only to wealthy cliques.
The original punks also took note of their surrounding political landscape, from women’s lib and gay lib to race riots and protests. In New York, the Ramones ‘look’ came directly out of the male hustler aesthetic. The Schott motorcycle jacket was part of a huge sub-culture in the gay scene; even their song “53rd & 3rd” referenced hustlers standing on said street corner in tight, torn jeans. Unlike some subcultures of yore, punk was interesting in that in initially embraced outsiders regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference. Another crucial piece of history seemingly overlooked by the exhibit was the harsh economic climate of the period. A recession that started in ’73 put an end to the general post-war boom in England, resulting in sanitation strikes, power outages and three-day workweeks. On the other side of the pond, Americans faced gas shortages and high unemployment rates. To top it off, in 1975 President Ford denied federal assistance to spare New York from bankruptcy. The infamous Daily News cover read: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” With this hindsight, the gown before your eyes suddenly doesn’t look so provocative. In fact it’s a tad desperate. At best it evokes Surrealism and high-end construction techniques. At worst, Hot Topic meets Madison Ave.
However this is not to say this highbrow homage was a total flop. With a certain degree of detachment, one can appreciate the craft and artistry that went into some of the modern creations. A bodice comprised of shattered porcelain and secured with copper wire, from avant-garde designer Martin Margiela, certainly channeled the do-it-yourself attitude. More than say, the $565 Givenchy T-shirts on sale in the museum gift shop. And almost four decades after outfitting Sid Vicious punk pioneer Vivienne Westwood is still going strong – and still stirring up controversy. However these days Westwood calls attention to topical issues by using wry slogans that read “Climate Revolution”, “I Heart Crap” and “I Am Julian Assange” (a nod to head of the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks website who used his world stage to post thousands of documents in the largest leak of U.S. classified material in the nation’s history).
Though a minority, these designers continue to challenge the status quo and in doing so, are able to understand and interpret the original punk ethos through their work. Ironically, the era was so visually appealing because of the fact it went beyond visuals. It also had an intellectual edge. These now iconic (and many unknown) artists weren’t necessarily philosophers but they were interested in ideas, both new and old. Many were observant and analytical; they respected thought and insight. Writer (and then-scenester) Glen O’Brien perfectly distills what made that intersection of people, time and space so unique, “…all of them [punks] had true personalities with style that ran deep. They were their own creators, their own stylists and their own designers. They didn’t buy a look or borrow one from a couturier, they conjured glamour out of thrift shops and thin air.”
With any luck there is still a trace of that magic out there, waiting to be torn from the ether.
Words by Daniel Alonso. Images via Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(Originally published June 2013)
“10 Years of Wooster Collective 2003—2013″, is a group exhibition curated by Marc and Sara Schiller featuring works and site-specific installations by over fifty local and international artists including Shepard Fairey, Ron English, How & Nosm and Olek. The Schillers have been avid supporters of the urban art movement by acting as a mouthpiece to help artists promote their message to a wider audience through the global community. Ultimately, “10 Years of Wooster Collective: 2003-2013″ is a tribute to street art around the world and its transformative power. In conjunction with the exhibition (housed in a temporary space in Chelsea), a number of the participating artists will also be creating public murals in various locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.
After witnessing the rise of temporary art on the streets of New York City over a decade ago, Marc and Sara Schiller founded Wooster Collective in 2001 to document the ever-changing face of their downtown Manhattan neighborhood. In 2003, they started the website woostercollective.com out of a genuine desire to share these images with the world – a few years mind you before social media and image sharing via Instagram, Tumblr, etc. became the norm. The collective’s mission is to discover and document authentic art experiences via salons, lectures, exhibitions and online. In 2006, they organized 11 Spring Street, a monumental street art exhibition that took place in an abandoned building in downtown New York, and was chosen by The New York Times as one of the top art exhibitions of the year. Three years ago, the pair collaborated with Carlo McCormick on Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art, published by Taschen. They have been featured in The New York Times, Time Magazine, Good Magazine and more. As a global voice for this brand of art, the Schillers have spoken at the Tate Modern, Design Indaba and The New Museum. In the curators’ words: “While street artists express themselves in a myriad of ways, they are often joined by a set of common principles: reclaiming public space, beautifying the environment and fighting for the freedom of speech. Street art has become the catalyst for people of all cultural and economic backgrounds to challenge the system and express themselves without any filter.”
Street art may have indeed eliminated the artist’s filter, but the medium also inadvertently democratized the art world. A few of Martha Cooper‘s snapshots that appear in 10 Years…, capture the burgeoning hip hop/graffiti scene of late 70′s/early 80′s. That movement eventually forced those in the art world to look beyond their colorless world of white-walled galleries, white wine openings and white artists and view their own urban landscape in a new light – as one endless canvas for these nascent maverick artists. It’s comforting that decades later, not much has changed. The artist Vhils for example carved his motifs into a found wooden door to create the moody “Insculpt #9″. His other piece “Homogeneo #9″, consists of hand carved and laser-cut billboards collected from walking down the street.
Rather than concentrate on one plane of street art and possibly alienate the viewer, the curators cleverly exhibited a fairly wide range of work – the delicate and feminine, to the droll to the bold and in-your-face. Zev’s pair of canvases, “Liquidated Marlboro” and “Liquidated Gucci” serves as a humorous homage to both Pop and Pollock. TrustoCorp‘s biting street signs deserve a few moments to appreciate all the innuendos. Topping it all off, Invader aliens discreetly adorn the space with their omniscient pixilated eyes. – Daniel Alonso
(Published August 2013)
Rob Roth is a multidisciplinary artist and director based in New York City. He works in a variety of media including theater, video, sculpture and performance. Roth received his BFA from Pratt Institute and has exhibited work at a variety of venues including the New Museum for Contemporary Art, Performance Space122, Abrons Art Center, Galapagos Art Space, Museum of Arts and Design and Deitch Projects as well as the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Roth’s work draws from underground theater and culture and has its early fertilization in NYC nightlife as one of the founding members of the spectacle ‘Click + Drag’.
The talented Mister Roth took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Platinum Cheese about imagination, gender hacking and the city he calls home.
As I was doing my research, I found that you are described as a multidisciplinary artist, donning many chapeaus throughout your career – director, performer and visual artist, to name a few. With such a varied background, what initially drew you to the creative side?
It’s been there as long as I can remember. I can’t recall a moment where I was ‘drawn’ to it.
Did you then (or do you now) have a favorite medium or do you find one informs the other?
I have always went from one medium to another, none of which I can say is a favorite until its current. I started as a painter so I think I approach each medium with that eye. At the moment it would be film/video, but only recently I would have said performance because that has been the focus in the last year or two. It’s all what I’m doing in the moment.
Each one informs the other for sure; I mix them up. My theory is that different mediums can carry the message like music styles. You can have one song and do it in several different styles, country, classical, opera, rock, but the lyrics and melody is still there. I like to mix theater with film and photography or think in sculptural ways through video. Really, what I try to do is think in more poetic ways within each medium, or at least that is the intention. I don’t use video in a performance just for the sake of having video; it has to play a role, almost like a character. At this point in time all lines are blurred; you do not have to be so confined to one thing.
Were there any artists you admired growing up/in your formative years?
As a child I loved any painting I saw, even terrible ones in the dentist’s office. I would stare at whatever image it was and make up stories about the subject. If I stared at it long enough it would start to move, I loved when that happened. As I grew older I think old black and white movies played a big influence. I do remember discovering Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa in a book when I was very young; it was the dramatic that seemed to intrigue me the most. Human tragedy. I remember being very moved by (Edvard) Munch’s The Scream too. I still am in fact.
And what is your aim as an artist?
To try to live a poetic life. It’s the never ending challenge.
As your work was very much tied in with nightlife, when did you first start going out yourself?
As soon as I could get away with it. I think I started using fake ID’s when I was 18 or 19 and would try to get in. Then when I went to art school, well, that’s when it became a lifestyle I suppose which then lead me to start creating and contributing to it as my art later.
I first became aware of your work through the great ads you designed for Click + Drag, the Saturday-night weekly at the experimental club Mother. Can you explain the genesis of the party and what your role was?
Click + Drag was born out of work I had been doing in the Nineties at Jackie 60 (the legendary Tuesday night) with Chi Chi Valenti and Kitty Boots. I created videos and projections for ‘futuristic and cybersexual’ themes. When Chi Chi and Johnny Dynell took over the space and turned it into MOTHER nightclub, we started a Saturday night that would blend the futuristic/computer with a classic fetish night. It had a different theme every week and a very strict dress code. My role was co-producer and Art Director. I created video projections, animations, installations, also photography for some of the flyers with Kitty as stylist. Sometimes I would MC or go-go too. It was a super creative and really wild time in my life. It’s all a bit of a blur, but I’m happy to have contributed to a great moment in NYC nightlife history.
You’re someone who truly witnessed the evolution (or devolution depending on who you ask) of NYC and its art/nightlife scenes as the Nineties gave way to the new millennium. What are your thoughts on that?
I recently did an interview about this subject with Michael Musto for a book being published by The Museum of Art and Design that will be out this spring. Basically New York City is in a constant state of flux. It’s a port city, an international destination so it’s always been this way. I think this is why it’s special, but it goes up and down. Obviously the city has always catered to a certain tax bracket but there was also sections that were for artists, musicians, writers etc. usually in parts of the city no one wanted to live in, and that keeps disappearing, so the more creative nights where culture is actually made and not just reproduced, can’t happen. That’s not to say it’s not happening here, it’s just harder I think. Nightlife has always had its ups and downs it’s like a stock market in a way, things affect the focus. Finance, politics, real estate, terrorism, the list goes on. But there are some great things happening, I have some favorite parties and fun venues that I go to; it’s all there if you are open to finding it.
In conjunction with The Mill, you art directed and animated the “Life on Mars Revisited” video installation which traveled the world with The Creators Project from Paris to Sao Paolo. How did that come about?
The director Barney Clay approached The Mill to work on an installation for Vice and The Creators Project using the original footage from the Mick Rock “Life on Mars” music video shoot. I had been freelancing there as an Art Director / Designer and they brought me on to work on it. They knew I had a lot of experience with live video installations and theater so I helped shape the idea. They scanned the original film spools that were just sitting around in Mick Rock garage or basement. The film was color corrected to its original form and there was also extra black and white footage and more outtakes. It was re-edited to a new soundtrack and projected on 4 walls in a cube structure you entered. A lot of the best talent from The Mill worked on it. 3D, Flame, Design and Editorial all worked on it. It was really an amazing result. With each city it traveled to it changed a bit. It was a great project to be involved with. I hope it shows again in the future.
You brought your multimedia touch again to a live rock show creating content for Devo and Blondie’s Whip It to Shreds tour last year. How did that project come about and what served as inspiration for the song visuals? Were there any challenges you or your team faced?
Debbie (Harry) approached me about visuals for the tour since there was going to be a big LED video wall backdrop. I’ve made many visuals for Blondie starting with the No Exit album in 1999 and also some of Debbie’s solo projects. I approached The Mill with the project and they jumped at it. I got to do some concepts I had been thinking of for many years (Death Disco Mirrorball being one) and a bunch of new concepts that came out of brainstorming while listening to some of the new Blondie music and older back catalogue. There were many challenges, time being one, and as with any technology how to avoid ‘glitches’. We did pretty well considering. There were a few rough patches, but it all came together in a real rock and roll way and I think it was one of their best tours actually. The LA show at The Greek Theater was an amazing night.
In addition to your design work, you and writer/performer Michael Cavadias collaborated on “The Mystery of the Claywoman” which blended live performance and film and featured many of your friends and notable names as characters. Tell us a little about the show and your role as Claywoman’s canine musical traveling companion ‘Craig’.
Claywoman was a character that Michael Cavadias created for the Blacklips performance troupe in the ‘90s. She was a 500 million year old woman from another planet. Then years later in 2008 he was asked to do it again for Deitch Projects at an opening. So we started working on a mockumentary that included all these weird characters who were ‘believers’ or ‘skeptics’ toward the subject of Claywoman. It featured some really great performers like Alan Cumming, Justin Vivian Bond, Amy Poehler, Ruth Maleczech, Debbie Harry and Edgar Oliver playing these over the top characters. The show was structured like a screening and lecture series so the film would screen before Claywoman (played by Cavadias) arrived to give her live lecture. As we developed the show and presented it at several venues and festivals including The New Museum, The Howl Festival, even opening for Antony and the Johnsons at Town Hall it would change each time. At one point I thought she needed a sidekick to play off of so that’s how ‘Craig’ was born. He was initially just a hair creature that crawled around the stage grunting and was very Neanderthal looking. I had been developing my own wolf/cat character that eventually morphed into the ‘Craig’ character and he would communicate through song to Claywoman, but only ‘80s new wave songs. So I took on that role and we did a final version at Abrons Art Center that had a two week run and was well received.
Are there any plans for future stagings?
Not at the moment, but ‘Craig’ has been performing a lot lately. I did a few shows at House of Yes in Brooklyn as well as a really strange benefit at The Irondale Center that was like something out of a David Lynch film. I really would like for David Lynch to see Craig perform someday. I think he would like him as a pet. ha…!
How do you balance commissioned, more mainstream work for an established firm such as The Mill with your personal work? Is your approach different?
I’ve been doing that balancing act for so long I’m just used to it. Sometimes it’s harder when the two worlds are overlapping, but I tend to make it work somehow.
There’s been a lot of debate but I think you are proof that one can still be creative and push the boundaries in this city. What do you attribute that to? Do you think the bohemian dream of decades past is one that is no longer achievable in 2013?
I’m not sure the word ‘bohemian’ even exists anymore accept in a fashion spread. That idea has been marketed like everything else. But I think anything is achievable here if you want it bad enough. There is always a way but you must adapt. It’s still an epicenter where all these worlds collide, and that is
In addition to working with legendary musicians, you’ve also befriended artists and performers like avant-garde anti-hero Genesis P-Orridge, who very much keeps the counter culture spirit alive. What have you learned from these artists? Do any of their philosophies seep into your own process or work?
Gen is amazing. The stories… I could listen to them for hours. I’ve been lucky to have met some of the artists who I really admire and look up to for inspiration. Diamanda Galas is another that I had a chance to get to know a bit too and it’s wonderful when you get the encouragement and approval from these artists. I think I meet certain people at moments that are crucial, moments when I may feel like giving up or have been very lost about what I was doing. I think what I’ve gotten from all of them is the reminder that you have no choice but to continue. I think that is the most generous gift an artist can give to another artist, the faith to keep going.
When I think of artists like Warhol, Ginsberg, Burroughs, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t their sexuality. As an artist who has worked within the LGBT community I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on having the label “queer artist” assigned to one’s name?
Labels are tricky. Queer artist is something that I don’t mind so much because it describes a sensibility or approach that does not necessarily have to do with just sexuality. It goes more toward identity that is based on belief systems, politics, alternative communities or more radical ways of thinking. It’s being a true outsider, which I think most artists are. I have known hetero-identified people who were more radical and queer than some gay people I’ve met. I look forward to the day when ones sexuality is so unimportant that you have to base your identity on what you believe in – not who you fuck.
Looking back, what are you most proud of?
I guess not killing someone, including myself. Ha!
What are some upcoming projects you have lined up?
I just finished directing a short film called Junkie Doctors so I will be submitting that to festivals. Also I was recently the recipient of the HARP Residency at Here Theater with comedienne/chanteuse Lady Rizo. I will be creating and developing a show for her that will premiere at Here in the next few years. I also have another idea for a web series with Michael Cavadias and will continue with the Craig character on stage and film, which keeps evolving. Most of these projects are at the very beginnings so it’s the most fun part… imagination.
As I walked west on 20th street approaching Jonathan Levine Gallery, I had a feeling this was not going to be a typical opening. True, the usual sights and sounds of a Saturday evening in Chelsea could still be spotted – throngs of bespectacled hipsters, name-dropping fashionistas; thirsty, unemployed art students. Forming a long queue by a freight elevator, they stood impatiently amongst a stoic masked performer in a crocheted camouflage bodysuit; clutching a banner (also crocheted) that read “Nobody Can Hurt Me Without My Permission”. In customary too-cool- for-school downtown fashion, the mysterious figure seemed to only attract stolen glances and the odd iPhone snapshot. As we reached the 9th floor, the doors opened to expel the mob at two solo shows: The End is Far by Polish-born, New York-based artist Olek and Tracy Had a Bad Sunday from Pop Art-inspired provocateur Parra.
This marks Olek’s second solo exhibition at the gallery. It also marks the end of a turbulent past couple years for the artist. In 2011, she was placed under house arrest after a disturbance with a male patron at a London bar. Subsequently, despite creatively and financially stifling circumstances, Olek found herself inspired by the ordeal, determined to fight for her creative and financial freedom. Granted permission to leave the UK between court appearances, 2012 became the most prolific year of the artist’s career to date, as she took on numerous international projects, public installations and commissions. She was part of the 40 Under 40: Craft Futures exhibition at the Smithsonian, for which her entire crocheted studio apartment was exhibited. During the rest of her travels, Olek collaborated with women across the globe, learning new techniques and experimenting with different materials.
The End is Far is a colorful testament to Olek’s reinvigorated spirit with a site-specific installation and live performance. She pushed herself into new territory by creating multi-layered crocheted sculptures like her humorous and girlish interpretation of a pair of boxing gloves entitled “Fight No. 01” (a jab at her barroom brawl, perhaps?). “Buddhism is Universal No. 01” is a peculiar juxtaposition featuring a plastic skeleton sitting in a Zen-like lotus pose, made with acrylic yarn and metallic ribbon. The still life “New Years Eve No. 01”, crocheted acrylic yarn and metallic ribbon on a bottle and plastic skull, is adorned with floral and skeletal motifs bringing to mind the festive Day of the Dead. During the opening reception, topless female performers donning masks, pasties and mermaid skirts, lounged in a fully furnished dining room installation accentuated with candelabras, overflowing fruit bowls and decadent wine goblets. Outside the installation in the center of the gallery floor, another masked mermaid playfully rocked to-and-fro on her swing. Viewers inched past to take in the bizarre scene and also survey the series of intricately crocheted panels displayed around her, emblazoned with wry slogans like “All We Need is Love & Money” and “Being Beautiful (On The Inside is What’s Important)”.
Making my way through the crowd I then came upon Tracy Had a Hard Sunday, the first solo exhibition at the gallery by Amsterdam-based, Dutch artist Parra. The series of new works – enigmatic paintings in a vibrant palette of highly saturated colors – are a logical foil to Olek’s feminine, camo-crocheted universe. The majority of the works exhibited are executed in shades of reds and blues featuring a recurring theme of stars and stripes and Parra’s distinctive hybrid, bird-like figures with features such as elongated, beak-shaped noses. His curvaceous nudes are portrayed in a variety of amusing and tawdry circumstances. Occasionally the artist will add his own stylized, hand-drawn typography to a piece. It’s evident that Parra’s sensibility is largely rooted in the Pop art movement and the experimental graphics of the 1960s. His dynamic, playful imagery references the street art of Keith Haring along with West Coast psychedelia. In addition to his paintings, a smattering of small-scale polyester sculptures was shown. Entitled “Lay Down… Lay It All Down”, they can be best described as bird/poodle creatures in high-heeled booties rendered in editions of red, black and white. And while there was a risk of drowning in a sea of primary colors, a wall of Parra’s small ink drawings served as a cool palette cleanser. Both thoughtful and witty, the black and white drawings called to mind Warhol’s “Before and After” series of reimagined newspaper advertisements.
I pass the artist himself as I exit the now sweltering room. Surrounded by fans young and old he happily pauses to autograph whatever paraphernalia they could gather. Lines to merely enter the galleries now fill the brightly lit hallway. Thankfully the slow elevator ride down to the street is quieter, especially when I look up to notice a familiar masked passenger, proudly toting her crocheted call to arms.
Words by Daniel Alonso. Photos via the gallery.