Gary Panter

Dunn and Brown Contemporary

Gary Panter is probably best known as the chief production designer for the cult ’80s TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. But to a different group of fans, he’s a major artist of the punk second generation of underground comics. His weird, free-associative graphic narratives have been published in books and magazines ranging from the influential comics journal RAW to Riddim, a Japanese reggae fanzine in which the artist’s captions go untranslated (why bother, since they make little sense anyway?).

Panter’s recent show at Dunn and Brown Contemporary included acrylic paintings on canvas, works on paper, and one recently published book. His full-scale art is derived primarily from pages in his numerous sketchbooks, which he enlarges and sometimes colors but otherwise hardly edits. This process results in spontaneous-looking compositions with the feel of something an adolescent Joey Ramone might have painted, had he been familiar with the concept of a postmodern palimpsest. Scenes from antique Disney animations rub up against allusions to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and R. Crumb in a slapdash mix that, while inelegant, is entirely Panter’s own.

Elegant resolution isn’t even a consideration in works like Tubby, 2004, in which scrawled black lines describe vague, stylized faces, bricks, and clouds. Beneath these are similar but conflicting images rendered in red and beneath those, casual patterns of pastel color. This layering technique, which generates simultaneously constructive and destructive interference patterns, is a constant motif for Panter. A painting titled Clog Area, 2003, is typical: It features a loosely daubed grid of plastic-toy colors superimposed on its left side by cartoonlike bird heads spouting blank speech balloons and populated on its right by goofy bear heads, trees, and model-train tracks. Between these two arrays, a field of bars and dots form the eponymous clog.

Panter’s book, Jimbo in Purgatory (Fantagraphics, 2004) provides a helpful, if ironically didactic, context for his deliberately gauche and perplexing paintings. It retells Dante’s Purgatorio in the form of a graphic novel, substituting Jimbo, a loin-cloth-clad character who has appeared in Panter’s comics since the mid ’70s, for the original protagonist. Here, the contemporary vernacular of the comic book—common chatter as opposed to formal, academic discourse—evokes Dante’s own use of everyday language. The book is crammed with pop-cultural references, too: Boy George shows up, as does Yul Brynner’s gunfighting robot from Westworld (1973), and Elvis appears in the role of the king. Each page offers extensive footnotes, citing sources ranging from Ben Jonson to Alice Cooper, Voltaire to a friend of the artist’s from rural east Texas. But since the footnotes are unnumbered, any mapping of reference to the text is difficult.

Consistent with Panter’s projects in general, Jimbo in Purgatory is a riot of voices, in which diverse systems of belief and representation are playfully juxtaposed. Gleefully crude in its celebration of its thousand-thread web of conceptual and visual influences, the body of Panter’s work is uncomfortably suggestive of the notes made by a particularly manic graduate student’s long-suffering psychiatrist.

Michael Odom