Although I had thought that you philistines were limited to only appreciating your most base impulse, when I reviewed Jesse Michaels' art show, there was a scant glimmer of reception. Indeed, regarding even the most minimal spark of cultivation from the Punknews audience as a blazing inferno of erudition, I once again donned my stripped turtleneck, red beret, and slim fit black trousers, tucked a fresh Dunhill into my cigarette holder, and journeyed up to Oakland to partake in the recent pen and ink exhibition of long running punk artist Fly titled Peops.
Based equally in New York and the Bay area, for the past 15 years, Fly has developed portraits in a most unique frame. After using basic inks to create line drawings of the subject's faces, Fly then handwrites a short biography of the subject, as told by the subject to Fly. Because Fly has been working on this craft for some time, she has amassed a profusion of these pieces, which have been documented in her Peops zines. The cream of the crop were on display at her recent opening.
Because Fly has spent a great deal of time in "alternative culture," a great deal of faces familiar to punk rockers found themselves hung on the wall. Nearly all of Leftover Crack was on display, as was World/Inferno Friendship Society's Jack Terricloth, Alternative Tentacles' Jesse Luscious and fellow zine-ster, Aaron Cometbus. Interestingly, some older acts were represented in Fly's portfolio, including both Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher of Crass.
Most interesting, though, is that the subjects were approached as people, in lieu of musicians. That is, the biographies floating around the subjects' heads were not told from the perspective of performers, but as people that just happened to be in bands. Indeed, some of the most well known musicians, such as Rimbaud and Ezra Kire, barely addressed their own music at all.
Perhaps because these subjects were at ease and perhaps felt as though they were not on display with music, many seemed to detail stories not well known by music fandom. I'll not give away some of the best stories, but I'll hint that Kire's story revolved around a three way rebel-backed war and that Terricloth has done hard time.
Equally as interesting were the unrecognizable faces. Fly seems to be intrigued by the fringe. Few stories were told from the perspective of the 9 to 5 laborer or stay at home moms, but rather, stories of drug deals gone wrong, murder, suicide and squatting were bandied about with the unimportance of a weather forecast. Could it be that this flippant nonchalance about the most morbid topics is because the characters on the walls are trying to outshine each other? Perhaps they are bending the truth in an effort to shock or pull undeserved pity from the viewer. Perhaps because the faces on the wall come from such a different world than myself, such fatal topics really are as mundane as selecting cream or sugar.
The audience reaction to some of these gruesome tales was as varied as the pieces themselves. One particular trio, adorned in tight pants and denim jackets with little differentiation between gender in dress, was spending precious little attention to the unique work at hand, and rather, used the work to discuss matters related to their peers. After glancing at one tale of a drug deal gone bad, one of the trio pontificated that So-and-so "was doing really well for himself now that he's off heroin." Indeed, the subject who, by name, was having his personal troubles broadcasted to all in attendance "nearly died and wasn't doing anything to help himself."
I noticed that the same condescension of the trios' friends was being applied to the subjects on the wall. Intrigued, I asked, "Tell me, you seem to ave more more of a knowledge of ze drugs than I. What does zis picture… eh… what does it say to you?"
At first I was met with annoyed glares, but upon my insistence, one of the trio applied, "Heroin is fucked."
"Ah," I replied. "Certainly, zis is true. But you are, how-do-you-say… you are taking only ze most superficial glances at zese works, yet seemed to be intently focused on ze free wine."
Although they scowled at me in unison, I continued, "Zese tales of ze drugs and ze murder, they are not merely pulp tales. No, no, no. They are windows into ze very essence of these people. They are not simply tales of adventure, but they are an examination of the world though example. Certainly, there are tales of strife here, but ze strife itself is not what matters most. What causes ze strife? How does it affect ze subjects? Your superfluous analysis lacks specificity… you wouldn't dream of going to an art show merely for ze gossip, would you?"
Later on, I again found myself in front of Terricloth's image. Also observing the picture was a lone man wearing a tight sweater with hair severely twirled into a perfected tousle and thick, black rimmed glasses. His stance, which included one hand on his chin and another strategically placed on his hip, informed all in the immediate area that this was not his first art show. Finishing Terricloth's tale, the man spoke, "That's the senseless prison system for you."
Intrigued at a fellow connoisseur's interpretation, I interjected, "Ah, but zis Jack Terricloth, how do you know that we can trust him? You seem to be taking his biography at face value. Have you never heard of the disingenuous narrator? The suspect device, if you will?"
The man leaned back and curled his face. Yet, I continued the conversation, "Look at all ze other drawings. Zis is ze only one where ze subject is not directly facing us, ze audience. Rather, Terricloth, he is looking at a 3/4 rotation. While all of ze other portraits are staring at us, ze viewer, Terricloth looks off at something off page, with a great deal of interest. What does zis say? Certainly, it cannot be arbitrary."
The man began to walk away, so I followed, "Fly, she has done other portraits that are not directly facing us, yet Terricloth's is ze only one here that is at a 3/4 angle. Let us continue, nearly all the subjects have a thin smile, yet Terricloth's smile is substantially more visible. Is he laughing with us… or at us? Are we just ze fish taking ze bait?"
Clearly amazed by my thoughtful analysis, the man broke into a sprint and ran out the door, clearly to conduct more research and reevaluate his previous readings.
Having brought fire to the plebeians, I retired back to the South Bay, contemplating Fly's minor, but direct, variations in her portraits.
Fly's Peops show runs in Oakland through May 9.