Niagara reflects on Destroy All Monsters

Cary Loren, Niagara Smoking Topless, 1974, black-and-white photograph, 20 x 24“. Niagara, Death of Spring, 1977, ink on paper, 14 x 17”.

Curated by PictureBox’s Dan Nadel and artist Mike Kelley, the first retrospective of work by the original members of Destroy All Monsters, the Ann Arbor, Michigan–based collective comprising Kelley, Carey Loren, Niagara, and Jim Shaw, opens at Prism Gallery in Los Angeles on November 19 as part of “Pacific Standard Time.” Here, Niagara discusses what it was like to work with the group from 1973 to 1977.

WHEN WE MADE ZINES, there were only like three channels on TV, and we could only get certain books . . . but we were all still on the same wavelength. It was like the Universal Mind. The way information is available now is interesting; I don’t think it’s worse, but it used to make more sense: People knew where everyone was going. Now, it’s like an octopus with a million legs, a crazy acid-trip scramble. Half the people are into nostalgia—learning history is good—but everything’s thrown together into a big goulash, and we’re just drowning in it. On the other hand, the man on the street can take his BlackBerry and look up anything. Information is at his fingertips. And that’s a nice learning tool, because people who didn’t care about school can have access.

It was Dan Nadel’s idea for the catalogue and exhibition. He’s brilliant, very organized, and he knows what he wants even if it’s just junk in my basement. It was great to see how he put the book together. Everyone from the group has his or her own chapter, but the art is all mixed together. Usually, when you think of Destroy All Monsters, if anyone remembers, there are just so many pictures and things that might be moldy. Prism is a gorgeous gallery. The main floor will have collages that Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw made a long time ago, much later than when we were together as a group. They’re images from all over Detroit. Jim’s an amazing draftsman and he’s really funny; his early work was humorous. The amount of Cary Loren’s photos I found surprised me. Cary and I made films, and Cary has been putting on different D.A.M. things, just like it’s a scrapwork quilt. Anyway, I’ll be on the second floor.

Access to Xerox and mimeograph machines came through the school; some guy we knew worked in the art department and University of Michigan store. We could work all night and we didn’t have to pay. At that time, we were all good friends in a band together. I wasn’t aware that our printed matter has been shown much recently, but I do know that anything that happened thirty or forty years ago is much better than when it was happening, no matter what time you’re in. Even if it was fabulous when it came out, nobody will like it until later.

I wasn’t conscious of being a woman in the group, you know, because everyone loved me . . . I was a man! I didn’t make images of women because I’m a woman. Females have been portrayed in art forever. I don’t know why. But I do turn it around, since my images were kind of hard-core, druggy, and the characters usually had a weapon. In the paintings, the genders are definitely switched at times––I just couldn’t believe when I was little, hearing men say things like, “Don’t worry your pretty little head.” I wondered where that came from. It wasn’t like I was acting like Little Bo Peep or something. It wasn’t femininity all of the time.

Of course we were a “collective,” but we never used that word. Art-wise, we didn’t work together with Mike and Jim that much, though Cary and I did movies and photo shoots. But no matter how you stirred the population of Ann Arbor, we would end up together. Nobody else would be in the group but the four of us. Mike has done some beautiful writing on this. He said that we all had our own imperialist ideas, and that we fought for them. That’s what we spent our time on––fighting. We had different tastes in music, Cary and I were more similar while Mike was seeing one thing, and Jim was into vintage and dreamy ideas. As for the music, we didn’t see eye to eye but when we played together, it sounded like crap! Maybe you thought I would say something different, like, it all really came together. But, no, it all happened in this weird way, and that’s why I thought the old tapes would be horrifying. I hadn’t listened to any of it in a while. I remember it was interesting to do, and we were doing our best. They’re pretty funny to listen to. There are moments where it’s melodic; it goes in and out. The old music weaves moments of noise and beauty together.