I’ve twice visited Gary Panter’s studio, a large room tucked away on the third floor of his house in Brooklyn; the table at which he works—he lays his canvases flat to paint—sits roughly near the center of the room and is surrounded on all sides and from above by evidence of his many and various areas of work: painting, drawing, comics, music, design, printmaking, and sculpture. All of his art is of a piece, so in his studio it’s especially difficult to get a sense of just one aspect of it. Rather than report on Panter’s recent paintings from there, I proposed we meet at Fredericks & Freiser, where “Dream Town,” his show of new work, went on view earlier this month. Most of the paintings depict figures excerpted from their original sources and painted flatly, as though collaged, onto either monochromatic or expressionist backgrounds. The pristine walls of the gallery make it easy to focus on individual paintings and to see the connections between them. Still, in his paintings, as in much of his art, Panter converses with an estimable range of cultural subjects and styles, so, naturally, we ended up talking about far more than just painting.
The beads in rows are Frank Zappa—the Mothers of Invention actually, album titles. Zappa was orderly, methodical. The others are Ed Sanders, fragments from his books. There are phrases from records by the Fugs, and he wrote a great parody novel about the hippies in the Chicago riots called Shards of God, so a lot of these are word fragments from that—“smelp troll,” “hovering hippie.” I’m also working lists of Ballard, Burgess, and other people. This is just a preview of my hippie project.
The whole project is personal. It’s a reflection of when I first went into a head shop in 1967 or ’68 on a family vacation to California. I wanted to be a hippie but couldn’t be a hippie—I was part of the Church of Christ. I fought with my dad all the way to California for the control of the radio knobs, because I was trying to get California stations. We got to the little town where my cousins lived—they’d moved from Oklahoma, where they’d lived super rustic, and now they were in Shasta—and there were hippies in town. We went to the hippie shop, and there were real, smelly hippies in there. Girls silk-screening, beading, a guy playing flute, and everything in the room was dark and kind of dank. We went next door, to a record shop, and they had walls of every psychedelic record I had never heard of. I drove my parents crazy until they let me buy a few, which I took back to Texas. But the sixties went really wrong in a lot of ways, so this is just hippie idealism.
I’m interested in trying to recapture what the hippies could have done had they not hit the consequences of free love, heroin, and speed. Too many people trying to be in the same place.
This is really a sixties painting. Trying to join the conversation of painting—modernism, anyway—is all about novelty, like “I do the stripe,” “I do the two floating, hovering clouds,” “I do the long, lashing brushstrokes.” And then, in the seventies, if you were a painter, everything had already been done. It was the death of painting. In the eighties, guys like David Salle and Julian Schnabel went back to the sixties. Most people try to go around their predecessors—I have to get around Peter Saul, for instance—but in the eighties, artists went right back to sixties problems. Everyone was trying to dig holes in the desert.
Making a painting is meditative, because I’ve already figured out my approach, I’ve already done a drawing, I know what it’s going to be. In that sense, there’s already a score written, so when I finally make a performance of it, I’m orchestrating the colors and the subtleties. For me, it’s always about the field and the subject. In the twentieth century there was a raw attempt to get past subject. They’d abstract it stylistically so it wasn’t recognizable—like Picasso at the beginning of the century. And then there was a kind of fusing of the figure with the ground, like in Dubuffet’s work—everything was flat.
I think Abstract Expressionism is like landscape painting. You take the subject away, you take all the figuration away, you’re still left with the emotions of the atmosphere. It’s an accidental or unstoppable association—patterns of weather, sky, water. In terms of figures, I’m trying to choose shapes that are interesting in themselves, and I put them in odd places so they become more interesting. Hopefully, that detracts attention from naming the figures, though your brain immediately thinks, Oh, two dinosaurs, or, Oh, a kid and a dinosaur. But if you’re making an abstract painting, you’re trying to dial that down.
Malcolm Morley said he chose stuff that meant nothing to him early in his career. It’s arbitrary—it’s just a racehorse or a ship. Then later, he starts painting children’s toys, and it seemed like his emotions were driving him. Some of the forms in my paintings are things that mean something to me—like the first dinosaur movie I went to or that my brother doesn’t believe in dinosaurs—but mainly they’re not that literal. The figures I’m looking for suggest a human moment, an interaction of attention. You don’t need to know the story behind the moment, only the feeling the scene creates. If you live with a painting, you see it for hundreds of hours, thousands of times, but most people see a painting for thirty seconds in a gallery, and past that, they get bored. So a painting has to do its job, whatever the artist wants that job to be.
I go through thousands of pictures, and hardly any of them will be in a painting. I did it last night—I looked at probably two thousand pictures and didn’t see anything I wanted to paint. Cartoons are usually telling a story. Paintings are more like moments or like poems, like haiku. You get it in a moment, if you get it.
I want the edges to be straight up to a certain point. I have corrected some of the edges to make them more precise, but I wont just keep going until you can’t tell them apart. That’s not important to me. I’m interested in how you see it quickly and how it feels around you, like it has an orbit or something. This type of painting tends to be kind of cold, so I’m looking for a little bit of heat.
It’s hard to get the narrative out. If you see a duck, you start thinking duck stuff. Frank Stella once said in an interview that naked women and ducks are always trying to get into paintings but that he doesn’t let them in. But Peter Saul lets them all in—all the ducks and naked ladies. It’s a different approach, because everyone can’t be Frank Stella.
I’m looking for loose ends and things that are missing. There are artists who do one thing, like, say, Peter Max. He did his one thing and then everyone else started doing it—and everyone else became Peter Max. If you keep moving artistically, if you have a life on the road, so to speak, then you don’t have to care if people like it or don’t like it or are influenced by it, because really it’s about you being alive for a little bit of time and trying to do something with it. The quirky thing about these paintings is I know how to paint all kinds of paintings, but I have a crazy idealistic sensitivity of trying to feel my way toward the right paintings to do. I can see hundreds more paintings that I could do, but I’m waiting for a little bell to ring in my head, and I don’t know who rings it.
I like the purple Gorgo painting a lot because I like the movie. It scared me when I was a kid. Gorgo was an English Godzilla movie, and they framed this Godzilla monster and they catch it and they put it in the circus, and it’s like a hundred feet tall, and he breaks out and gets lost in London and they’re shooting it and then its mom comes out and rescues it and she was like a thousand feet tall and she’s like, Come home, baby, and smashes her way back up through the ceiling and they’re gone. In the painting, that’s the baby’s hand coming out of the water. But that’s only important to me. Unless you were twelve years old in 1960, you didn’t have that experience. It’s not necessary information for appreciating the painting. What’s important to read in the painting are the colors, the shapes, the reflectivity off the torch in the water. If that wasn’t there, it’d be a lot less interesting. It’s a disruption that indicates a different space. It’s all an illusion, it’s not real, it’s on a stage, or a window. It’s painting. It’s an insecure business. Painting is really insecure stuff.
“Dream Town” is on view at Fredericks & Freiser through September 27.