"Punk: A True and Dirty Tale," Oct. 7, 2004-January 2005, at the Hospital, 24 Endell Street, London WC2
"History is for pissing on," declared the entrepreneurial harlequin of Punk, the notorious Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren.
As the British establishment lavished in post-60s conspicuous consumption, Punk rose like a pop anti-Christ, turning culture on its head. Punks first eruptions occurred in Britain in 1976-77. And to date, its the countrys single most important cultural revolution since the height of British Modernism of the early 1920s.
"Punk: A True and Dirty Tale" is a collection of punk fashions, graphics and other relics meticulously assembled over the last 12 years by art dealer Paul Stolper and Art Monthly deputy editor Andrew Wilson. Now on view at the Hospital in London, the show has been lauded as "the most accurate assessment today of Punks creative importance" by one of Punks authoritative biographers, author Michael Bracewell.
"Punk" reveals the potency of the movement and its reversal of acceptable values -- even to the point of debunking anarchy itself -- by turning it into a camp joke. "One of my favorites was the Anarchy hanky," said filmmaker John Maybury, director of the Francis Bacon biopic Love Is the Devil. "It came with a black Seditionaries tag."
Vivienne Westwood and McLarens two infamous Chelsea boutiques, named SEX and Seditionaries, were creators and purveyors of handmade garments that today are deservedly considered works of art in their own right.
This extraordinary collection started as if by accident. Stolper and Wilsons first acquisitions focused on the printed graphic work of artists Jamie Reid, Helen Wellington-Lloyd (the first to use the kind of ransom-note lettering later popularized by Reid) and Nils Stevenson (brother of photographer Ray Stevenson) -- all whom designed flyers for the legendary Sex Pistols.
"Although Punk had been a formative influence on both of us as teenagers," says Wilson, "the motivation for forming the collection was not nostalgia for our youth but by a determination to unlock the iconographic secrets that lay behind the identity of the Sex Pistols."
The exhibition spans a series of complex and explosive collaborations occurring within popular culture over a relatively short period of time.
Music may be the principal element defining the subversive identity of Punk, but the iconography defined it just as potently. A quasi-cultural thief, McLaren had the idea to echo the dynamic of New York -- Andys Warhols factory crowd and the Velvet Underground of the late 60s.
Never Mind the Bollocks is a poster that once hung in Room 100 of New Yorks Chelsea hotel, then-home to Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Examining the poster closely, one can see speckles and smears of blood in the lower left corner, presumably left by Vicious and Spungen as they cleaned their syringes. The poster was still in room 100 on Oct. 12, 1978, when Spungen was found dead on the floor, stabbed in the stomach and soaked in blood.
Vicious, who injected heroin along with Spungen, was arrested and subsequently charged with second-degree murder. Out on bail three months latter, he died of a heroin overdose.
The poster, Anarchy in the UK Sex Pistols First Single EMI 2566, heralds the Sex Pistols' first single release on Nov. 26, 1976. In this now-classic collage, artist Jamie Reid disrespectfully shreds a photograph of the Union Jack, only to put it back together again with bulldog clips and safety pins -- with the Sex Pistols logo smack in middle of the flag, tethered like a dog on a silver chain.
Punk imagery still has the power to shock. SEX is a unique, hand-printed T-shirt (1976), one of the early prototypes that incorporated irreverence as a motif. Its a Sex Pistols ad at its best, flaunting the image of a naked teenage boy, who adopts David-like pose and seductively holds a cigarette in one hand. McLaren originally found the image in a pedophile magazine. The boy is like a modern-day St. Sebastian -- the word "Sex" is stamped all over his sexually charged body.
Another version on the theme, London's Most Notorious Band - Sex Pistols - Club du Chlet du Lac (1976), is a promotional poster designed by McLaren, Bernie Rhodes and Glen Matlock for the bands first foreign concert held in Paris on Sept. 3, 1976.
Designed by Jamie Reid and Sophie Richmond, the Sex Pistols Bulletin Anarchy in the UK! (1976) poster was opportunistically produced to capitalize the nationwide press coverage, that followed the Pistols outrageous antics on Bill Grundy's Today television program broadcast of Dec. 1, 1976. The ensuing scandal forced the cancellation of many of the dates on the Sex Pistols "Anarchy" tour, and eventually led to EMIs move to "buy-off and be rid" of the rebellious group in January 1977.
First printed in 1975, the original Cambridge Rapist T-shirt contained the singular image of a nefarious black leather hood. But after police suspected that one of SEX's customers was actually the Cambridge Rapist, the T-shirt was withdrawn for sale while McLaren was away in America. On his return, incensed, he posthumously added the other elements to the design -- including the unsavory music-industry gossip about Beatles manager Brian Epsteins penchant for rough trade -- and put the shirt back on sale. Is this McLarens twist on the Beatles "its been a hard days night"?
Jamie Reids God Save the Queen (1977) is a trial proof appropriating Cecil Beatons official portrait of the Queen, with a safety pin collaged through her lip. Larger versions of God Save the Queen were used to advertise the Sex Pistols eponymous smash-hit single, plastered all over the sides of Londons double-decker buses.
Also by Reid, Cosh The Driver (1978) is a promotional poster for the release of The Biggest Blow, A Punk Prayer by Ronnie Briggs (June 30, 1978). It depicts Briggs recoiling, about to throw a punch -- the promise of violence to the viewer -- without the guarantee.
The principle originators of Punk are swift to acknowledge the importance of punk as a process, rather than an end unto itself.
Yet for all its nihilistic posturing -- the threat implied by its language of anarchy, topped with a dash of McLarens tabloid-bating nastiness -- there remains an almost surreal beauty to these majestic relics of Punk.
Perhaps this explains why it still remains fresh, armored by an authentic shell of intensity that resists assimilation into todays "Super Paradigm" of contemporary art. God save Stopler and Wilson.
The exhibition is accompanied by No Future, a book edited by Mark Fletcher (18.99).