Elements of Gary Panter’s style have been widely—if anonymously— experienced by countless viewers of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. As production designer for that series, Panter bore responsibility for the show’s unmistakable (and heavily merchandised) aesthetic and earned three Emmy Awards in the process. Those who know Panter’s name often celebrate his still-growing body of avant-garde comics, first published in Slash and RAW and cherished today by younger cartoonists and narrative image-makers. But Panter identifies himself primarily as a painter, a vocation he has actively pursued since his adolescence.
Panter, a self-described “hippie” who has also been dubbed the “king of punk art,” seems to genially embrace the apparent disjunctions and contradictions that characterize his career. In fact, accommodating apparent contradictions is Gary Panter’s life’s work.
Gary Panter, a formidable new monograph that surveys the breadth and depth of Panter’s career to date, makes the case for Panter the painter, as well as Panter-the-everything-else. The book itself is a slipcased set containing two full-color, clothbound hardcovers—one landscape oriented, the other portrait bound—edited by publisher Dan Nadel and smartly designed by Helene Silverman (who is also Panter’s wife). Although clearly a labor of love, the book’s production and design minimally frame the voluminous artwork on display, and short essays and interviews by a well-curated selection of commentators (Mike Kelley, Doug Harvey, Rob Storr, et al.) succinctly introduce each of the book’s major sections. The work is supplemented by a revealing career narrative in the artist’s own words.
The book’s first volume surveys Panter’s multifarious oeuvre, including paintings, drawings, comics, psychedelic light shows, hand-crafted architectural models, and other objects and images. Although the whole scope of Panter’s work gets a full airing here, nearly 200 pages of his paintings from 1972 to the present dominate this volume. Vibrant with organic geometries and swarming with cartoon imagery, Panter’s paintings avoid depersonalizing ironies by teasing out the modernist dimensions and resonant subtexts inherent in popular imagery and other “unofficial” art, without rejecting or denying the qualities that make pop iconography attractive in the first place. Simultaneously, Panter’s densely layered images engage—quite cheerfully, in many instances—with the underlying problems and compositional questions of painting. Panter-the-musician’s artwork suggests a mostly tuneful duet between pop melody and brainy aural discord.
Surveying the broader landscape of Panter’s work, one is confronted with paintings that look like prints, prints that look like drawings, manufactured items that reveal the hand of the artist, and handmade evocations of glori-ously off-register printing. As both a disciplined painter and an observer (and consumer) of mass-mediated pop culture, Panter has married these related positions by mastering the art of approximation. His stylistic approach links the generative doodle to the particular qualities of mechanical printing (from woodcut to offset) and “off-model” art, finding a range within which to explore and exploit the possibilities of two-dimensional image-making.
Panter has staked out especially productive territory, which can be detected in the relationship between his paintings and his comics (which are excerpted in this monograph and available in full elsewhere). Panter literally made his mark in comics by bringing the values of painting into the medium with a bold gestural approach and an aggressive style-mixing that were, at the time, still rare for a visual genre that traditionally favored relatively smooth continuity. He accomplished this, moreover, without undermining his cartoon language or narrative flow. Equally remarkable is his ability to simultaneously import cartoon imagery into his paintings without mummifying or ironizing his visual subject. The resulting work in each medium addresses separate formal concerns but clearly belongs to an artistic sensibility, identifying Panter as an artist to be reckoned with.
More than a strategy, Panter’s stylistic approach is the product of an active human hand and an observant mind. As such, his visual transmutations can perhaps be best considered by accessing the artist’s personal laboratory. The monograph’s 335-page second volume is devoted entirely to excerpts from 30 years of the artist’s sketchbooks, including observational drawing, comic strips, sketches for paintings, and other graphic experiments. Each spread in this portrait-bound volume cleverly orients each reproduced sketchbook spread dead-center, regardless of size, while the uncoated cream paper suggests the tactile sensation of leafing through Panter’s private stock. These sharp sketchbook reproductions reveal sensitive, hand-drawn meditations on our post-industrial culture; handsomely bound into a mass-produced book object, they function as a fitting tribute to a great visual poet of the nuclear age of mechanical reproduction.