Summer 2007, WM Issue #4: Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years

Summer 2007, WM Issue #4:  Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years
John Stezaker, Eros XV, 1977-78 courtesy Barbican Art Gallery, London

Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years
Barbican Art Gallery, Silk Street, EC2
by Ramsay Cooper, whitehot magazine, London

June 2007 marks the anniversary of two major cultural events of the later days of the 20th Century. Firstly, we have the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebration, and secondly, the release of the Sex Pistols (yawn) God Save the Queen single.

In summary then, one gratuitously over-hyped media frenzy of a national event which perpetuated vacuous mock-appreciation and hollow, self-indulgent participatory patriotism in the name of an outdated institution, and one gratuitously over-hyped media frenzy revolving around a manufactured rock ‘n’ roll band who bellowed easily quotable and commercially viable t-shirt slogans that promised a lot more than they ever actually delivered.

Yet latterly these two events both seem to define to us in the present the unquestionable zeitgeist of the year 1977. There has over the years been an unfortunate tendency to cover the musical and cultural aspect of this period to the point of nausea inducing saturation. Discussed far less in the mainstream media is the art that was produced in those same days; the usual tendency to focus inanely on the pseudo-revolutionary rock n roll cliché thereby leaves the honourable ‘artistes’ out of the equation. 

Thankfully, Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years at the Barbican intends to clear this up. With a focus on British and American artists and the correlation and similarities between their work, the exhibition means to highlight key thematic traits that ran through the critical art being produced between the mid 1970’s and mid 1980’s.

The exhibition is far less about the musical form of punk, and mercifully is more concerned with the notions of urban alienation, direct social commentary and ‘do-it-yourself’ ethic that the punk movement brought along with it. Recurring features in the work on display at Panic Attack! include the appropriation of mass-media ephemera, (especially the use of cut and paste collage as social critique) photographic illustrations of subcultural lifestyles, the issue of gay liberation and transgressive and provocative body and video art. Artists on display here include Jean-Michelle Basquiat, Gilbert and George, Barbara Krueger and Jamie Reid, but it is not these more widely known artists that truly astound.

Moreover, it is the work of the less well-known artists that standout as exceptional from the 1970’s-80’s period. These include John Stezaker’s postcard collages which reappropriate outdated postcard vistas of London’s Piccadilly Circus to form hallucinatory perspectives on familiar scenes, Linder’s sexualized Dada-esque photomontage, Raymond Pettibon’s expressionistic pen and ink drawings and the COUM Transmissions pornographic photo-exhibit which strives to challenge attitudes towards the body and our accepted social norms.

Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years is a wholly refreshing display of the relationship between British and American art that particularly highlights the side of the punk movement that often goes unnoticed; one that was ever more radical than its original inception as an often contradictory and mock-revolutionary musical subgenre.

whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Ramsay Cooper

Ramsay Cooper is a freelance arts writer and musician living in South London.


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