New York

Bruce Conner

One doesn’t have much occasion to refer to Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style these days, but Bruce Conner’s recent show “Punk Photographs” rendered that cultural-studies classic a touchstone once more. And the fact that Subculture was published in 1979 and Conner’s photographs from the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino nightclub in the North Beach area of San Francisco, were taken in 1978, is only one reason for its renewed relevance.

Conner’s photos take in the entire culture of the club, from the bands who performed there (most notably Devo, DOA, and Negative Trend) and fans and scenesters like a pre-“Mickey” Toni Basil, to bathroom graffiti (Womans Room at the Mabuhay, 1978) and detritus-strewn after-hours scenes (Trixie: Closing Time at Mabuhay, 1978). The ethos of punk—particularly the partial dissolution of distinct categories like “audience” and “band” and the formation of a DIY ethic—parallels Hebdige’s analysis of the British version as an antidote to overblown stadium rock.

Of course, there’s a heavy dose of nostalgia in these photos, and not just because they were taken more than twenty-five years ago. What is removed from the images and turned into history is, in Hebdige’s phrase, the meaning of style. The impact of punk’s self-consciously abject character has clearly been lost, so that where Hebdige could quote someone saying after a Sex Pistols concert in 1977, “I felt unclean for about 48 hours,” the recycling of this style today allows for easy adoption by the mainstream: Karen O of the purportedly “underground” Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the family-friendly Ashlee Simpson are virtual equivalents.

A curious and initially incongruous-seeming inclusion in this show was LUKE, 1967–2004, a new film assembled from footage shot when Conner visited Dennis Hopper on the set of Cool Hand Luke (1967). Conner’s silent film, accompanied by Patrick Gleeson’s sound track, follows the plodding progress of filmmaking (moving equipment; tête-à-têtes between the director and crew) and features occasional appearances by star Paul Newman, greased up for his role as a convict on a Southern chain gang. Cool Hand Luke itself is a rebel classic—Luke is a former war hero sentenced to prison for vandalizing parking meters—but, like Easy Rider (1969) or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), it’s a pessimistic vision.

Pairing the film with the photos appeared to be an exercise in comparing and contrasting two different creative cultures—renegade Northern Californian youth and the institution of Hollywood—in two different periods. In the gallery, black-and-white photos of Devo and saturated color film of Newman at first seemed totally disparate, utterly incompatible. But both celebrate and memorialize facets of the rebel cultures of their respective times. They also raise questions about the possibility of contemporary equivalents. After all, when Hebdige’s tome was published it would have been difficult indeed to imagine an age in which Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh scored music for films like Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004), Toni Basil choreographed Gap commercials, and Paul Newman manufactured salad dressing for McDonald’s.

Martha Schwendener