Gary Panter, Gary Panter (Picture Box, 2008)
While riding on the subway to Brooklyn, I spotted a muscular hipster decorated in colorful, decadent tattoos. Although a giant frankfurter was printed across his bicep, it was the image on the side of his arm that really caught my attention: an anthropomorphized slice of pizza, and a beer-can, raising their human arms into a united high-five. The image struck me as simultaneously charming and repulsive. The message is endearing as a cynical piece of satire, but it is by now a redundant and kitschy trick.
This tongue–in-cheek attitude, for better or worse, has become a staple in today’s underground comix scene. In the most recent self-titled publication by Gary Panter, traces of the sardonic, referential approach to illustration are found. In an untitled drawing from the volume containing his sketchbook work, a sedated Cap’n Crunch smiles lazily, the only drawing on a two-page scan of a notebook. These amusing but tacky moments do appear in Volume II of Gary Panter, but for the most part, Panter, the noted godfather of the post-psychedelic (punk) period of comix and graphic art, is a disciplined and original illustrator.
Panter’s work is derivative: he appropriates familiar pop-culture symbols, but he does so in a manner that is far from mean-spirited or sarcastic. When he is at his best, Panter amalgamates potentially incongruous pop images into a surprisingly concrete expression. Borrowing from many sources (manga-styled work, Americana, the punk aesthetic), there is a cohesive¾rather than a collaged and divergent¾feel to his ink drawings. In Chocolate Covered Cherries, two guitar-playing metalheads strike a pose, unaware that a He-Man action figure is soon to pounce with a battleaxe. What occurs is not so much irrelevant, innocent fun, but a continuous statement on the essentially meaningless relationship we have to cultural symbols both past and present. The figures in the drawing are both inconsistent and dispensable. Ambiguity results, as Panter does not make an overt statement on American culture. The figures in his drawings are both out of place and at home with each other.
Volume I of the anthology¾arguably the weaker of the two¾mainly functions as a collection of the artist’s paintings, spanning from 1972-2007. As in his sketches, inane, stock characters populate the paintings in Gary Panter. Unlike the sketches, however, their presence feels problematic. In an interview with Robert Starr in Volume I, Panter acknowledges his own reluctance in including aspects of the cartoons in his paintings: “I let more of my narratives happen in the comics…But in paintings I don’t want it to err on the side of narrative.” Later in the interview, Panter expands on this tension: “Painting also seems to be about stopping time, whereas storytelling is tricking somebody into that dreamtime.” Although he is well aware of the conflicting quality of the two forms, many of the paintings are rife with inescapable narratives. Works such as Octaface and Approach feature abstract, grid backgrounds, with cartoon characters inhabiting the foreground of the pieces. Inevitably, the punchline driven characters are completely at odds with the more painterly forms. When this contrast is not quite so intense, Panter manages to create pop art that is less confused. In Killbilly and Restway, feverish, colorful works appear in the same vein as Peter Saul. These surreal paintings, essentially cartoon-based, are more accessible, although conservative.
Panter’s iconography is often effective, but ultimately, one has to wonder if there is enough potential for interpretation. Tropes, such as the rock star and the Americana bikini babe, found throughout his work, can shift from accessorily to obscurity. One has to wonder if Panter’s drawings and paintings are too idiosyncratic. In his final statement in the publication Panter confesses to this highly personal approach to his work, stating, “I am everything in all the paintings, but I am usually, mainly, the guy painting the painting.” Gary Panter, however, by giving us an intimate look at the artist, provides a rare and uplifting take on the cliché, a world that can be re-imagined and strengthened.