There’s no more tiresome conversation amid pop culture critics than the debate over whether or not punk is dead. It’s about as productive as yammering on about whether Tim Tebow has got the heart of a champion or whether or not you think Cam Newton’s smile is genuine. It’s not a 2+2=4 debate by its very nature, but people tend to argue for their side with mathematical certainty. Now it’s just a boring snake eating its boring tail.
So the real answer—the punk rock answer—is: no, and who cares? The Algerian thinker Albert Camus once wrote that in the depth of winter, he found within himself an unconquerable summer. In that same vein, punk is a holy artistic spirit, and anything short of embracing its font of energy, its unconquerable summer, is just cheating yourself. It’s hiding your radness under a bushel.
Two new exhibitions with this same spirit will be debuting simultaneously at the beta pictoris art gallery on Friday the 31st, running through October 5th. The first is The Bruce Conner Portraits, a series of rare photographs of some of the biggest names in rock and roll from the late ‘70s, taken by Bay Area writer and photographer Richard Peterson. The second is SOAKED, a selection of New York artist Susanna Starr’s critically acclaimed sponge-based works created from 1994 to 2004.
If even a single bone in your musical body has an affinity for late-70s punk or new wave music, attendance at The Bruce Conner Portraits is simply not optional. Peterson has fascinating portraits of Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, David Byrne of Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols, and Devo, to name a few. That’s just about a David Bowie, a Joe Strummer and an Elvis Costello away from being a complete look at the highest order of the ‘70s punk and new wave pantheon.
The portraits are fascinating in how they reveal the playful, distressed, and just plain human sides of figures who have long since passed into pop cultural lore. Instead of her typical aloof sex goddess guise, we see Blondie’s Debbie Harry stressed out and frustrated during a rare break. We see David Byrne looking like something other than a complete weirdo. We also see Devo planking.
In the front room of beta pictoris is SOAKED, an exhibition of Susanna Starr’s award-winning sponge-based pieces. Though they look like bloody donuts to the unfocused eye, Starr’s works are perfect examples of the same punk ethos Peterson’s photos captured years ago.
Generally created by pouring paint onto, into, and through industrial sponges, Starr’s works have an uncontained physicality to them. Instead of a supposedly complete work of art, the sponges seem somehow alive. They remove the wall between the audience and the artistic process, reminding us that all art is on some level participatory and democratic—it’s each viewer’s job to “complete” the piece, to find their own meaning. If that’s not a punk rock, DIY ethos, I don’t know what is.
And, like great punk rock, Starr’s art borrows from genres while defying categorization. Though she’s been seriously compared to such greats as Mark Rothko, Claes Oldenburg, and Roy Lichtenstein, and though she’s danced across the boundaries of Minimalism, Expressionism, and Pop Art, Starr’s works are in a class of their own. They’re every bit as vital a demonstration of that old-time punk religion as the iconic subjects of Peterson’s stills.
Founded by Belgian-by-way-of-New-York transplant Guido Maus, the beta pictoris gallery brings this commitment to independence and risk-taking to all its exhibitions. The gallery is located at 2411 2nd Ave. N. Richard Peterson will be there live and in person on opening night from 6-9 p.m. The gallery’s regular (appointment-only) hours are Tuesday to Friday from 1-4 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.