Los Angeles

Linder Sterling, poster for Buzzcocks’ single “Orgasm Addict,” 1977.

Linder Sterling, poster for Buzzcocks’ single “Orgasm Addict,” 1977.

“Loud Flash: British Punk on Paper”

Honor Fraser

Linder Sterling, poster for Buzzcocks’ single “Orgasm Addict,” 1977.

What is there left to say about punk in 2011? Some thirty-plus years after the fact, the spiky-haired and safety-pinned look has taken its place right alongside that of the hippie as a Halloween-costume option, drained of any potential to shock or scare. One could go further and claim that if punk once marked the outer limit of subcultural rebellion, then its apparent loss of agency suggests it may no longer be possible to signify refusal in stylistic terms. Today, the punk rocker mostly appears as an endearing, Muppet-like caricature.

However, Honor Fraser’s recent exhibition of punk-rock ephemera—which showcased the collection of Toby Mott, who also organized the show—reminded us to what extent a cartoonish element was part of punk from the start, and that this in no way betrays its direct line of descent from Futurism and Surrealism to Dadaism on down to Situationism (as theorized in Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, for example). The ubiquitous photomontages of Ludus’s Linder Sterling, whose cover design for the Buzzcocks’ single “Orgasm Addict” (1977) features a nude female model with a steam iron for a head and smiling lipstick mouths for nipples, recall the targeted agitprop of John Heartfield as much as the just-for-the-fun-of-it absurdism of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. Elsewhere, band members of the Dead Boys and the Vibrators could be seen mugging and assuming poses straight out of the funny pages of Beano and Viz. With their utterly unthreatening front man Captain Sensible—here presented in the form of an outfit-changing cutout kit—the Damned may have led the charge from punk-rock sedition to harmless juvenilia, but the Sex Pistols were not far behind. And, for their part, the Pistols were hardly the only band to put their hard-core credentials into question, as when, in 1980, they covered the 1966 track “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” by the made-for-(Saturday morning)-television band the Monkees.

Consisting mainly of posters, handbills, and zines—which is to say, forms of publicity and self-promotion—“Loud Flash: British Punk on Paper” demonstrated just how ambivalent punk rock actually was when it came to its own marketing. The vehemently anti-Thatcherite spirit evinced in so much of this work cannot obscure the fact that the movement’s scrappy DIY attitude is entirely a product of post–welfare state entrepreneurialism. The pitiless stance of the so-called Iron Lady was not rejected so much as exacerbated by the punks, who resolved to become the even colder children of this cold mother. The anger aimed both outward and inward was openly hyperbolic—a coping strategy, perhaps.

As British artist-designer-collector Mott framed it, punk may well have had bigger fish to fry than Margaret Thatcher: namely, royalty and racism. The defaced Elizabeth II that Jamie Reid put on the cover of the Sex Pistols’ 1977 single “God Save the Queen,” by far the most reproduced work in this show, was played off against an ultrakitsch selection of souvenirs from the Queen’s Silver Jubilee of the same year (here granted its very own stretch of wall). Likewise isolated from the torrent of insurgent anti-aestheticism that ran right through this show were the more circumspect expressions of wounded national pride and anti-immigrant racism disseminated by the National Front. Here one could observe the very same cut-rate production apparatus deployed by the punks—cut-and-paste and Xerox—put to the purpose of consolidating the national character, which emerged as a cartoon as well, but a very different kind. With clumsy/tidy layouts, generic fonts, and missionary-pamphlet style illustrations, this crudely fascistic work elicits grudging sympathy even as it foreshadows the current rise of a no longer silent majority in the US and beyond. The false empowerment of today’s exponentially expanding underclass, determined to take charge of a society that has already left them behind, gets its start here, too. The three options put forth by this show remain in place: to be born with the pie, to fight over the scraps, or else, in the words of the late Malcolm McLaren, to make “cash from chaos.”

Jan Tumlir