Thursday, December 12, 2013

'Rip It Up & Start Again' by Richard Walker at Gallery Petit

Joyful destruction as creative impulse: that's my distillation of punk.  A forest fire scorches the earth clean of life leaving behind a smoking hellscape.  As gnarled, rotten wood collapses into ash, green shoots spring up.  The inferno was punk: the last 'big crunch'. In '77 the death knell of dreariness rang out across the land in a squeal of guitars and "fuck off grandad"s. Culture stared into the bathroom mirror and with a sly smile pulled out a razorblade and began some very necessary mutilation.

This was Year Zero: clothes, music, art, prose, film all infected by a desire to chop, tear and reprocess.  To melt down the banality surrounding you and forge snarling, streamlined bullets, aimed right at the brainpan of a wageslave society mogadonning its way down dull, unfriendly streets.  Punk was a neon atom bomb falling out of a drizzly grey sky - and the epicentre of the explosion was Sex, 430 King's Road.  Run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, the boutique catalysed the nascent punk movement: fetish and bondageware rubberly dangled from the racks, graffiti, agitprop and chickenwire decorated the walls, very angry, very raw music crackled across the room  Behind the counter kids that would become idols: Vicious, Hynde and Matlock.

Richard Walker was a student at Camberwell College of Arts in the 70s, spending his days walking down the Kings Road mixing it up with this electric cocktail of fashionistas, artists and musicians.  We're here to see some surviving artefacts; a series of screen prints of titanic idols, faces chopped and sliced in chaotic collage.  This is Rip It Up & Start Again, a flirty teaser for a wider dissection of punk's legacy scheduled for Spring 2014. The work is nestled within Gallery Petit: Sandra Higgins wonderfully warm living room gallery on Harcourt Terrace - a hop and a skip around the corner from punk's Ground Zero on the Kings Road.

A.M. World (1977)
The series works as a crystallisation of the punk movement: the ragged, collage style its own manifesto.  Celebrity faces ripped from black and white newspapers are surrounded with blunt, scissored out blocks of colour and frantic scribbles. In A.M. World, David Bowie, in full Thin White Duke mode, leans in for a smooch.  Walker severs the face from the body, showing us Bowie's cut-glass features as mask.  His photograph is composed of a hailstorm of halftone newsprint - forcing us to wonder how much of this picture is real and how much we're unconsciously interpolating.  I don't know about you, but the idea of David Bowie as a series of transitory masks filtered through our perceptions works for me.

Bianca's Valentine (1978)
Many of these works feature a kind of forced baptism into punk culture.  Face after famous face is dunked into deep blocks of colour, features washing away into abstraction, image trumping individuality.  In Bianca's Valentine, Bianca Jagger projects a million pound smile from within a golden mane.  Her disembodied hand hovers somewhere beneath her, raising a chunk of unidentifiable red matter to her lips. The effect is both carnivorous and the predatory - an 'icon' in both the modern and classical definitions of the word.

Pink Posing Patti (1975)

I love the different ways in which the photos merge with Walker's collage. For example; Bowie is a a mask atop a formless void of a body, Jagger is a half-figure divorced from the shapes surrounding her, peering through a gap in a wall.  But it's Pink Posing Patti that most intrigues, the lines of her body and features completely melting into the shapes around her, showing us a figure entirely at one with her environment.  Patti Smith played midwife to the nascent punk movement - fusing an abrasive 'up yours' curl of the lip with literate, poetic lyrics and insisitent guitar lines.  Importantly, Patti Smith isn't dissolving into formlessness here, she's expanding to include a huge variety of influences - a portrait of musician as receptive, open and expansive.

A Really Good Time (1977)
A Really Good Time shows a faceoff between Bryan Ferry and Jerry Hall, the design depicting  Hall's Jaggerward trajectory away from Ferry. From a 2013 perspective I could not give less of a shit about gossip column bullshit from the 70s, and neither, I suspect, did Walker when he made it.  We see Ferry, a grinning idiot hiding behind a ham-like hand, and Hall painted up like a ridiculous Warhol Monroe.  The two pictures look to have been literally torn apart -  scraps of paper left on top of each other.  It doesn't take too much squinting to see these as vicious knife slashes, an orgiastic destruction with the leftovers packed into mortars and fired back against the mainstream that birthed them.

Even after a quarter century punk retains its potency.  It's cultural movement as scalpel, sharp enough to cut through insincerity and lies, bony, mean, pierced and instinctively battling bullshit.  Those who dismiss it as adolescent nihilism with a penchant for mindless destruction and cheap offence are missing the (burnt) forest for the (burnt) trees - there's a molten core of DIY creativity here that can't be extinguished.  What punk does (and what this exhibition indicates) is that the building materials of a new culture are stacked all around us.  So pick up a stick of dynamite and plant it in the foyer of some stuffy cultural institution. When it goes off, dash in, boot down the rest of the crumbling ruins and build something better, something razorsharp, something whipsmart. I look forward to seeing the full exhibition in 2014.

‘Rip it Up and Start Again’ opens is on until 10th January at Gallery Petit, Chelsea, London

Viewing by appointment only. To schedule a visit, or for further information, contact:

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