Inverting Aura: Paintings by Gary Panter
Gary Panter: Paintings, 1986 – Present at Fredericks & Freiser
October 6 to November 5, 2011
536 West 24th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 633-6555
Gary Panter’s paintings are but a subdivision in his empire of imagery, which ranges from astonishing sketchbooks and seminal underground comix to set design, illustration, and packaging. This graphic cornucopia is conceived and executed, most of it, in layers of color separation, even when not in fact being prepared for printing; with acrylic as with comix, Panter’s customary technique is to improvise figurative outlines atop vividly colored background fields.
This layering methodology sets limits on the paintings, a selection of which, from 1986 to 2011, is on view at Fredericks and Freiser. But it can also be a strength, since Panter’s line is legendary. Jimbo, Panter’s punk expressionist comix hero, who first saw the glare of night in 1983, virtually originated a style of jittery, apocalyptic humor the times required, while tearing an anarchic hole in the defiant hair shirt of crackerjack craftsmanship pioneered by control freaks like R. Crumb and Robert Williams. At Fredericks, a Panter painting on paper, Deadlier Than Male (1986) exemplifies Jimbo’s adventure-comics-on-angel-dust savagery. Its potent black linework chisels blocks of background color with jagged menace. More recent works on paper, such as Flypaper, Wanting, and Water (all 2004), float a cutesy, cartoony syntax of robots, gizmos and widgets in black outline over layers of broadly brushed neons in a Polke-like perceptual jumble. Here Panter’s command of line as a highly credentialed designer and mastermind of retro-futurist style achieves doodling momentum, with painterly effect.
On canvas, however, Panter can seem lost. A group of new wide-format friezes dispenses with the outline, opting instead for blockings-out of photographically derived figures that float over a vibrating geometry of chromatic opposites. Sweat It (2010) is both the best and worst on view. Its foreground layer, a mod squad of leather-clad hippies, enacts bits of counterpoint with the forced-perspective Op striping beneath, which comes to suggest a knock-off Vasarely Don Kirchner bandstand. But confoundingly, Panter is unconcerned to rework areas where flesh and clothing wash through, stranding the responsive eye in a nowhere land common to all his canvasses; however interesting as images, they tend to be neither substantial nor atmospheric enough to be self-sufficient as paintings.
Panter’s ambivalence about painting is quite different from the allergic reaction of comix gods like Crumb and Williams to the pretensions and hypocrisies of Modernist rhetoric, let alone contemporary gallery chic, which are specific targets of their wrath. Panter the historian recently co-curated a show of Zap Comix originals at Andrew Edlin that hung concurrently with MoMA’s German Expressionism, The Graphic Impulse, and certain lineages were apparent. On one side, there is the “radical conservatism” of Otto Dix and George Grosz (the phrase is from Carroll Dunham’s first-rate Artforum appreciation of Dix) –– their twisted, precisionist truth-telling and Dada shock tactics –– which one can see reborn in the masterful taboo graphics of the psychedelic underground.
German Expressionism, however, was powered by alternating currents. Grosz and Dix themselves were cattle-prodded by the fracturing vision of Kirchner (Ernst Ludwig, not Don); his most profound student, Max Beckmann, influenced farther descendants such as de Kooning and Guston –– all part of the canon despised by Crumb and Williams, but swallowed whole by the omnivore Panter, who has never had a chip on his shoulder about painting.
Still, Panter disdains the fleshy physicality of the medium. Painting needn’t be thick, but it must be tactile –– the rush of vision needs something to work against: resistant facts, tooth. Perhaps Panter, like many another contemporary painter, misreads the expediency of Warhol and Rauschenberg (like Panter, an escapee from a Texas religious cult). It is not so easy to straddle the crevasse between real McCoy and reproduction, between object and image.
This divide goes back to the essential bipolarity of the German Expressionists, who jumped on printmaking and pamphleteering to spread word of the fiercely subjective new art as broadly as possible. The genius of the marketplace may yet resolve these vectors. But at the Edlin show, it was a bit of a toss-up as to whether the pristine Chelsea setting added art value to the venerated Zap originals, by virtue of admission to the market’s most gated community, or subtracted cult value, by tendering these relics as mere drawings made by mere artists. “Today,” wrote Walter Benjamin in 1936, “the cult value would seem to demand that the work of art remain hidden.” To put it another way, the more copies in circulation, the more sacred the original. But Benjamin’s prophecy was only half right: the oft-cited “aura” of the unique, old-fashioned art work has not, correspondingly, withered away, despite the coolest, most mechanized flattenings of Rauschenberg, Warhol and their heirs; indeed, because of them.
The most seductive canvas in the show, Door Jamb (2009), is a rebus of kiddy-consumerist textures in bright blues and greens against a floating world of orange and purple –– yet tellingly, it looks that much better as a page in Panter’s limited-edition book “The Land Unknown.” In ink, the painting’s chromatic pop is more saturated, like an Ad Reinhardt Golden Book; its candy-coated innuendoes –– a magic wand, a keyhole, a leaky pipe –– work as trapdoors to adjacent red light districts in Panter’s graphic sprawl. The reproduction, in this case, has all the aura.