1.04.2010

Graphic Novel Of The Month: "4, 3, 2, 1... Earth Below Us"

Gary Panter (PictureBox): “Gary Panter was born to be the new master of a very secret school of visual communication... [his] art functions as some kind of cutting edge research for human consciousness.” That’s the most condensed, concise, and elegant way of putting it. “Off to the side, in a cave niche reserved for the super cool were Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Iggy Pop. They were sculpting pseudo-Art Deco structures in chromed metal while watching Kenneth Anger films projected onto a spinning disco ball. A vampire with a lisp read Philip K. Dick novels out loud to them, affecting boredom and superiority. Mirror light fragments broke the room into a zillion shreds of satanic needle-like emanations. Gary Panter’s job was to draw these various kaleidoscopic visions, and then to photocopy and staple them together into free pamphlets to be left in laundromats around the city. The intent was the perversion of the minds of the children.” And that would be the most expansive, visual, and frolicking way of putting it.

For me, working in restaurants and bars for a few years quickly made me interested in drink mixology. One of the most commonly debated topics in these circles is the origin of the martini and its quintessential elements. One popular point of dissention is how “wet” or “dry” it should be, essentially meaning how much (and what type) of vermouth is used. Winston Churchill famously made popular the notion that drier was better and said that his version consisted of pouring a glass full of cold gin while simply looking at a bottle of vermouth from across the room. Somehow this rusty analogy unceremoniously popped into my mind when thinking about Gary Panter and all of his variegated stylistic influences. His work is touched by many things, but they’re all very subtle glances, no direct correlations, nothing as homage, nothing as a familial descendant with a readily apparent lineage, and nothing done as a continuation of some identifiable artistic movement. It’s its own thing. He’s his own deal. He’s the real deal.

Hopefully I don’t have to tell you who Gary Panter is, but just in case, you could do worse than reading the Wiki entry quickly. Pause. Pause. Pause. Back? Ok. Yeah, I was sort of always aware of Panter peripherally as an Underground Comix guy, sort of the second generation torchbearer of the jaggedy-lined DIY aesthetic informed by Robert Crumb, Jack Kirby, Philip K. Dick, and Andy Warhol – but I’d never really taken a close conscious look at his work. I remember the Master of American Comics Exhibit being right in my own backyard at the time, and I also remember this PictureBox book coming out a year ago and people like Jog getting a little (understandably now) crazy over it. But what finally got my attention was his still un-credited (even in the collected edition!) loose homage to the Green Lantern Corps origin sequence in Marvel Comics’ Omega: The Unknown reimaging helmed by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple, which I reviewed quite favorably. And then, perusing my museum bookstore one day, I found this hefty, two-book, hardcover, slip-cased beauty and accepted it as a sign that it was finally time for me to dive in. It’s a collection of just a handful of scholarly and entertaining essays, but mostly pictures. Book One is largely a collection of Fine Art paintings, while Book Two is primarily excerpts from his voluminous sketchbooks sometimes concerned with Sequential Art.

I think the big lesson to learn from the wide ranging body of Panter’s work is that it’s impossible to segregate into a singular style or movement. That’s largely the point. He is, all at once, post-pop, post-punk, and now, post-9/11. He is the convergence of so many styles, that he is nothing. The title of one of his works, Me Am No Art, captures this ethos quite well. Panter’s work is not just about the relatively simple contemporary art paradigm of re-appropriating common images or found objects and submersing them into a new context. Once understood, that’s a very linear process. It goes far beyond that. He cannot be contained or categorized; definitions of artistic movements are too precise. His work is non-linear, “an encyclopedic inventory of visual experiences” some have called it. In a serendipitous confluence of movements, he’s created his own unique and evolving aesthetic of recombinant art. Pieces like Drybeat Baby, Tijuana, and several of the Untitled works in the deconstructed 3D series exhibit these characteristics. The Panter aesthetic, if such a singular thing exists, is not contrived or by conscious design. He simply “does what he wants to do” without worrying about defining it, a similar studio method shared with “Providence” (as he loosely refers to the Rhode Island School of Design gang) and “the Fort Thunder people.” Japanese cinema and package design play their role, American sci-fi seeps in, and psychedelic 60’s rock and 70’s glam rock may also reveal their subconscious presence. There is certainly the whiff of Fine Art as well; it’s impossible to look at a Panter piece like Uniform World and not immediately think of Ed Ruscha’s found text pieces. Panter’s comix career began with self-described “ratty picture stories” and he pays requisite reverence to Jack Kirby’s transcendent work. Panter strikes me as a confident, but humble guy. I wonder if he’s aware of his own influence on modern comic book artists like Paul Pope, Nathan Fox, Joe Sacco, or even someone like Shepard Fairey.

On the down side (if I have to say), I did have some issues with the Book Two layout. Most of the images are split vertically down the center where the book lies open. It really distracts unnecessarily from the work. It’s almost as if someone thought the book would be horizontally oriented like Book One, but then for some reason the plan was changed prior to production at the last second. Wrapping up, I like the notion that Panter developed a “tertiary narrative system” by juxtaposing related but unconnected patterns to convey meaning, which is evidenced nicely in the piece Workings. As he describes, Fine Art is about stopping time and capturing a moment, mood, or place. Comics are about seducing your audience into a narrative journey. The primary thing about art is the drawing; painting can be viewed as secondary. I think in that sense the argument can then be made that Fine Art is rooted in Comic Art. I’m sure that statement will piss off the stalwart Fine Art cognoscenti who like to marginalize comics as low-brow and inherently a lesser form. But hey, Panter himself straddles both disciplines and keeps a foot in both worlds, he laid out these original thoughts, I’m just interpreting here. I once heard “greatness” defined as making obsolete all that has come before, while leaving your mark on all that comes after. Panter began his work midway through the 20th Century, but with his particular studio style he’s built for himself a working paradigm that will have lasting impressions well into the 21st Century. As he’s done with most popular 20th Century artistic styles, his influence will be felt in future attempts to condense and distill elements of 21st century culture into a complex visual shorthand that engages the audience and focuses our wandering attention amid the cluttered landscape of disposable pop culture. Grade A.

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