Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years – Book Review

panic-attackAuthors: Mark Sladen and Ariella Yedgar
Publisher: Merrell (2007)

Catalog from Barbican Art Gallery, London, UK

Panic Attack! Explores art produced from the mid 70’s to the mid 80’s in Britain and America, when both countries were a breeding ground for the subcultures of punk and post-punk. Although the punk movement is most famously known for its music, fashion and graphics, this exhibition throws a new light on the period, exposing a vibrant art scene that also emerged during these years, most notably in London, New York and Los Angeles. Panic Attack! Brings together over 150 works by 30 artists, including photography, painting, performance, film, video and other media and demonstrates how their work embodies many of the concerns and attitudes associated with the punk years.

Nan Goldin, Greer and Robert in the bed, NYC, 1982. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York © the artist

Nan Goldin, Greer and Robert in the bed, NYC, 1982.

The Oil Crisis of 1973 provoked a severe economic recession in Britain and America, exacerbating economic inequalities and political tensions in both countries. The artists in Panic Attack! Represent the punk zeitgeist in a number of ways, and one strand in the exhibition looks at artists who made work with direct political intent. These include British artist Victor Burgin, who created two cycles of image-text pieces. UK76 and US77, reflecting the fractured social landscape of the two countries at this time.

Many artists turned to the imagery of urban decay, often using it as a symbol of the public crisis. Stephen Willats made quasi-documentary and collaborative works with the inhabitants of slum estates on the edges of London. Gordon Matta-Clark made art from the fabric of the city itself, creating installations by literally cutting into Manhattan’s post-industrial landscape. John Stezaker created a series of surreal collages using postcards of Picadilly Circus, while Robert Longo in New York made his celebrated Men in the Cities series, showing smartly dressed figures in states of trauma and collapse.

Other artists who drew on the urban fabric to make their work included Jenny Holzer and Barbare Kruger in New York, who played with the forms of public address found on posters and billboards, and British artists Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow, who both made work of New Yorkers Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, figures associated with the emergence of graffiti art.

Cerith Wyn Evans, Epiphany, 1984.

Cerith Wyn Evans, Epiphany, 1984.

The 70s saw the rise of both feminism and the gay liberation movement, and there was a flowering of art involving performance and the body, as well as a confrontational exploration of issues such as sexuality and violence. The Violent Tapes of 1975 by Argentinean-born artist David Lamelas consists of a series of ‘stills’ from a non-existent film depicting a violent chase through the streets of an imagined city of the near future. In Cindy Sherman’s famous series Untitled Film Stills, 1977-80, the artist appears as different female characters, using costumes, wigs and make-up to transform herself.

Some artists, including Paul McCarthy in Los Angeles and the group COUM Transmissions in London, pushed at the limits of what could be represented within performance art. COUM, which included the artists Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanny Tutti, was responsible for the infamous Prostitution exhibition at the ICA in London in 1976, which included sexually explicit imagery and which provoked a Tory MP to call COUM the ‘wreckers of civilisation’.

Panic Attack! Also explores the many crossovers between the world of art and music at this time, Robert Mapplethorpe was a contemporary of the first generation of the punk stars in New York. Notably Patti Smith, while at the same time, London based film-maker Derek Jarman was making films with the punk icon Jordan. Nan Goldin’s breakthrough work, the Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was shown at a number of New York clubs in the early eighties, while British film-maker and artist Cerith Wyn Evans made the film Epiphany, 1984, featuring Leigh Bowery, the London clubbing luminary celebrated for his outrageous costumes and body modifications.