Any even slightly exhibitionistic art student knows the ground rules to starting a band: do some serious hanging out, pick a name, make a noise, and bring that noise with supreme gusto to a group of people in a basement or a cafeteria. It’s simple and satisfying. Perhaps one in five art school bands will play a second gig, and perhaps one in ten will get around to recording anything. There’s a distinguished lineage to this class of contemporary music–the Who and Talking Heads, for example, took shape this way–but the art-school band project does not, typically, evolve into a life’s work. What it has ever done, and will ever do, is provide a locus for the young artist’s evolving personal definitions of friendship, politics and art. It is part of the artist’s apprenticeship. With its humble summer exhibition devoted to the band Destroy All Monsters, the Printed Matter bookstore on Tenth Avenue has done sterling work to explore and explain this impulse.
Destroy All Monsters are in many ways the definitive art-school outfit, the Ur-band. Formed in 1973 by three students from the University of Michigan and a young filmmaker, the band played in loose configurations on any odd occasion, emitted records and zines and posters via innumerable obscure channels, and documented themselves relentlessly through tape, video, and photograph. Original member Jim Shaw went on to become a visual artist, a surrealist and master technician who hasn’t yet got his proper critical due (though he shows consistently at Metro Pictures in Chelsea). Mike Kelley grew to become one of the best-known and most prestigious contemporary artists in the world (though he primarily holds a place in my heart for two remarkable volumes of short critical writings published by the MIT press a few years ago). The noise they made–alongside documentarian Cary Loren and the sirenlike Niagara, herself an accomplished visual artist–was collected in 1994 for the three-disc Destroy All Monsters: 1974-1976, and it’s relentlessly offhand, a meandering, clumsy, and always super-live collection of unprecious clatter that sits between post-Ayler free jazz, Ginsbergy scat, comedy records, acid-burned folk, and Cage/Riley-esque tonal noise adventures. The DAM visual aesthetic squished together the rhetoric of monster movies and pin-up girls, the optical contrasts and curlicues of LSD visions, and the grassroots seditionary cues of the newsprint poster and mimeograph machine. What a band does, by definition, is play, and this group played in every way, as hard as they could.
An included 1969 photograph of MC5 frontman and DAM guiding influence Wayne Kramer shows precisely what all this playing can add up to. With his back to the camera in front of a mammoth American flag–reminiscent of the indelible opening sequence of the movie Patton from the same year–Kramer’s legs are spread wide, his flares draping on the bias. His head is a towering meatball of afro curls, while his white right hand is a fist thrust in the air at a perfect 45 degrees. A guitar and a rifle are crossed across his back. He is black and white, a militant and a hippy, a desperado and a patriot, a vessel for any and all powerful feelings.
A smattering of equivalent photographs render Niagara a red-lipped b-movie fantasy, black-haired witchy priestess, or black-gloved fascist guard. One image tellingly depicts her holding and pointing to a photograph of herself in another guise. A collection of small pin badges–sold for five bucks as a ‘nickel bag’ at the exhibition–include the gothic letter D (synonymous with Detroit), a quote from Sun Ra (“Nothing is”), the White Panthers logo, and a version of the artist Ray Johnson’s iconic Bunny. The reasoning for all this? Wear them all, support them all, and embody them all.
A large part of the exhibition is made up, simply, of things Cary Loren has collected and is now offering for sale. There are bona fide art collectables, 100-dollar-plus 45s, flexidiscs, and yellowing paperbacks. But there are also souvenirs intended for everybody. I was particularly taken with the inexpensive “original soul patch pin”–a felt, hot glue, and googly-eye portrait of a bearded hippy. Here, ten dollars will buy you a shot of energy and affiliation. The band worked and endured by piling up their passions and broadcasting them to the world. It’s still happening. The art-school band is an earnest experiment in empowerment and self-belief, and through them (and this exhibition) we may remember what it felt like to believe that art was a conduit for revolution.
Printed Matter, between 21st and 22nd Street on Tenth Avenue, is an odd place, at once a paradise and a prison for books. I’ve yet to figure out how to shop there, but I appreciate the fact that it is world famous for a reason. The Destroy All Monsters show is on view during regular shop hours until August 29th.