Article by Janet Easton for York Mix – Dazzling pop art explores Myth America in all its shades.
What do you get if you mix together a dazzling exhibition space, three musically influenced artists, two contemporary gallerists, a stunning selection of visually bracing artworks, a glamour of Yorkshire glitterati, the mayor with the best hair and an open door?
The hip-hop, be-bop, don’t stop, party-till-we-drop most exciting private view and post-launch party shenanigans happened that opened Myth America at According to McGee.
If you missed this fun filled evening, don’t worry, the exhibition runs until August 7. Get down to Tower Street and take a visual holiday and bracing trip around the uplifting graphic pop art of Horace Panter, Gary Brown and Mat Lazenby.
A blast of energy
Drawing one’s eye into the gallery, the coruscating glow of the red neon sign in the window boldly proclaims ‘Americana’ – the text reflected in the rain slick pavement of historical, medieval York.
Redolent of Edward Hopper, this image aptly portrays some of the themes and dichotomies explored by the art inside.
The concept of Myth America was developed between gallerists Greg and Ails McGee with artists Horace Panter, Gary Brown and Mat Lazenby.
“We didn’t want it to be a mash up of three different artists”, says Ails, “But at the same time we didn’t want an intellectual event which had to be unpacked and pondered over.
“Pop Art is a blast of energy, and often I think too much concept can dilute a great contemporary exhibition. But when we hit upon Myth America, and all of the different viewpoints that it brings, we knew we had a winner.”
Step into the white space and feel instantly transported to a land of expanded horizons, the endlessly unwinding asphalt road, the searing dome of unreally blue sky, heat haze flattened perspective, the hypersaturated colours of this familiar, yet alien landscape, punctuated with almost surreal, but entirely real candy striped diners and motels.
Panter’s images explore archetypal American iconography and architecture-experienced from his years travelling the roads as bassist with two-tone ska legends The Specials.
Panter says “I’ve always been fascinated by America. It’s where my favourite music comes from, and most of my favourite art for that matter.”
Looking at these images, one can almost feel the hot, dry air, smell the roadside sagebrush overlaying the melting tarmac and petrol fumes. Those places exist – one guest was thrilled to see a motel she had stayed in, as a child.
The sense of slight distortion and visual flattening in the paintings accurately mirrors the minimal landscape of road, scrub and sky.
A total contrast from rural, leafy North Yorkshire, perspective is given by the punctuation of buildings both recognisable but other, a succession of diners squatting under the impossibly empty clear turquoise sky.
Panter adds, “I can see why David Hockney spent so much time out in California. The sky really IS that colour!”
With titles and signs entreating Eat, Donuts, Stan’s Liquor, Sunny Grill and Big Boy cheerily offering a burger, a theme of consumption and ingestion is evident.
Not only the drive by, fast food quick fix offered by Deano’s and Yuca’s but the appetite for Americana, the symbols, the images, the stereotypes, the mythical otherness which made the transatlantic crossing via music, film, TV and cultural imports.
Greg says “Accessible and instantly familiar, it’s not so long ago the American lifestyle loomed like fantasy for those of us watching from UK suburbia in the late seventies.”
The stars and stripes flag, resting in the still air against a white flagpole, a red Cadillac, parked but dynamically thrusting out from the frame echo a duality explored across the paintings.
Static moments, stopping points, Pop art freeze frames along the expanse of highway. There’s a tension in these landscapes – empty diners, unpeopled motels, undriven cars, signs beckoning, directing, guiding action but yet a feeling of stasis-a calm blue stillness.
The notion of journeys and musical influence is evident across the three artists’ work and draws a unifying theme through Panter’s diners and motels, Lazenby’s metro signs and Brown’s digital reimagining of soul legends.
Of the curation and exhibition, Panter uses a music metaphor “It’s always interesting to see someone else’s take on my work – it’s the art equivalent of a remix or dub version.”
DJ mixes it up
Remixing pop art into his own dub version-designer, photographer and Northern Soul DJ Gary Brown’s colourful portrait series is a digital reimagining and refreshing new take on soul legends who were underappreciated in their time.
Brown explains the importance of music in his artworks. “1960s rare soul music has captivated me for the best part of 20 years – hearing DJs play records that would either send shivers down my spine, captivate me with their heartfelt emotion or get me dancing.”
With pixelated graphics evoking both newsprint and Roy Lichenstein, and using coloured pop art overlays Brown has made something entirely new.
Like a musical speakeasy, the works distil and blend underground music and art into a heady visual cocktail.
Brown explains: “My images for this exhibition celebrate the work of artists, unknown to many, whose one-hit-wonders went on to become immortalised on the Soul Scene.”
Hanging in groups of four, the female singers gaze coolly from their frames, demanding the recognition they never achieved in their lifetimes.
Etta James pictured as Marilyn Monroe with a blast of acid yellow hair is particularly striking.
Brown says: “It’s fitting, I think, that these artists are celebrated in a defining 1960’s pop-art style – unashamedly drawn from the styling cues of Warhol – which would have been fresh and modern at the time, and because these artists simply would never have had the opportunity to be treated in this way.”
Brown’s homage to these soul singers is not simply a nostalgic reverence for Americana and the transatlantic culture which influenced him so much, but an attempt to rectify the failure of the American Dream for these musicians in their lifetimes.
Why not treat them as movie stars, legends and empower their images today? This is the underbelly of Myth America – the dark side of the dream.
“Many of these artists died penniless, without any recognition, let alone fame,” Brown said.
“Yet their music lives on, their records immortalised in soul clubs across the country and beyond. It’s a shame they never knew.”
Where Panter explores journeys above ground, Mat Lazenby takes his art deeper, “casting the subway as a cultural artery beneath the city, a conveyance to mythic, half-imagined places”.
Like Brown, it’s the underground, the niche, the sub-sub-genres which interest Lazenby in his pieces. He explains the musical and graphic themes: “In my work I have adopted the utilitarian visual approach of the New York City subway system to tell a story of key ‘unsung’ moments in the evolution of music in America.”
Lazenby’s subway signposts echo musical development from the glittery glamour disco days of Studio 54, funk and soul in the Bronx, early ska and two tone, to expressing the danger and squalor of bankrupt Brooklyn in rap, hip-hop and underground music culture.
Starkly beautiful against the white walls of the gallery, these pieces are spare, but redolent and evocative – embodying more than would first appear-layers of meaning and levels of reference embodying the structure of the underground system itself.
The notion of travel and journeys, destination and stopping points supports the imagery of Panter’s fast food places and roadside motels.
The appreciation of underground, niche musical artists and their history echoes Brown’s acknowledgement of significant musical moments, celebrated through an artistic response.
Duality continues within the signs – at first glance what looks like metro information does not show destinations, but musicians.
These signs are not what they first appear-stations become rappers Biggie Smalls, Masta Ace, Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def and Aaliyah on Lazenby’s print Bedford-Stuyvesant. This is an area of New York City where Biggie Smalls grew up-alternatively known as “Do or Die” and an incredibly fertile ground for other musicians.
The history of the signs likewise holds a duality-originally they were printed black onto white, but became so dirty in the subway that they were illegible and were reprinted white onto black.
Lazenby’s graphic printed signs stand out against the white gallery walls yet sit well with both Panter and Brown’s pieces.
He says “For me this exhibition brings together three very different and personal takes on American culture, in my case it is about how the visual language of a place becomes fetishised and slightly distorted on its long journey across the Atlantic.”
Distortion is evident in the jarring note of unexpectedly dripping colours which reference graffiti culture and undermine the clean, graphic shapes of the metro symbols.
Tying in with Brown’s coloured overlays, Lazenby references Warhol’s lifestyle in his Studio 54 piece.
He says: “For 33 months, Studio 54 was the giddy epicentre of 70’s hedonism, a disco hothouse of beautiful people dancing to Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell.
“It hosted party after party for one-name celebrities; Minelli, Warhol, Cher, Bianca, Halston (who) rode a miraculous wave of power and pleasure until it brought them crashing down.”
Myth America is not simply a nostalgic exhibition of pop art-not just an easy bite of visual fast food-these artistic explorations have substance and relevance today.
With current world politics in upheaval the yearning for transportation to altered and other states, travel, adventure and expanded horizons perpetuates the myth of The American Dream.
Beyond the bright blasts of fizzing colour, look further to what lies beneath the cityscape, the emptiness of the road-distortion and exaggeration shows us underground culture, the dark hidden places of stereotypical American imagery – the underbelly of that mythical Transatlantic beast.