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A quick flip through the record collection gathering dust in my closet (like that of any former punk rocker), and it’s only a matter of seconds before one stumbles onto the iconic work of photographer Edward Colver. The off-frame face about to eat the barrel of a handgun on Channel 3’s Fear of Life. Bad Religion’s desolate cityscape on How Could Hell Be Any Worse? The black-and-white TSOL debut. The dog statue in the doorway of Wall of Voodoo’s self-titled EP. Black Flag’s Damaged. The first two Circle Jerks albums. Canadian band DOA, FEAR, China White, Jodie Foster’s Army. The list goes on.
Colver’s album covers and his photos in seminal fanzines such as Flipside were such an integral part of my formative years, chronicling the swirling, crazy giddiness of SoCal’s hardcore scene, that seeing them collected and displayed in the Hibbleton Art Gallery’s new space in Fullerton’s SOCO district is . . . well . . . it’s kind of like an acid flashback that hits you a couple of decades after you’d stopped taking it.
Organized by guest curator Jenn Serpa, “The Eye of the LA Punk Scene”is a modest, if thematically muddled, affair, containing several assemblages and more than two dozen photographs. Eye-catching and creepy/cool, the assemblages certainly have a punk sensibility—blunt politics, religious derision and a rough sense of humor—but they don’t really have anything specifically to do with the punk scene itself. The swastikas (Now Appearing, Coming Soon) and fear of nascent fascism would have felt right at home in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan joked about bombing Russia and the Moral Majority began its rise to power, but seeing it now? It feels knee-jerk and overstated, as only the reactionary members of the Tea Party drop that political f-bomb with any seriousness anymore.
The assemblages that deal with other issues—the hostile overthrow of art predecessors (Apt Pupil’s shears jammed into the eyes of Pablo Picasso, “This Space Available” painted over the Mona Lisa in Lease Mona), the terror of American health care (Bound for Glory), the trap of capitalism (Use the Right Bait) or the washed-out currency in $—are images as arresting as Colver’s photographs and a welcome addition to his oeuvre. My hope is that some future curator will put together a show of just the assemblages, but here, they don’t open up the title of the exhibition in any way I can see.
Colver’s greatest hits have already been featured in his jam-packed coffee-table book Blight at the End of the Funnel, so if you’ve already bought a copy—and I suggest you do so right now if you haven’t—you’ll have seen most of the photos on display here: a mohawked Darby Crash staring straight into the camera lens. The famous shot of three pairs of boots in repose, chained, strapped and wrapped in bandanas. Jello Biafra crawling toward the camera as if fearing his rabid fans are going to kill him. A punk flying through the air (Wasted Youth Flip Shot, circa 1980, or find our cover story “Available Blight,” June 29, 2006), as faces below him (or at least those watching him) pull an “Oh, shit” look and extend arms to protect themselves. The late Roger Rogerson (bassist for Circle Jerks) floating in the air as he is captured mid-jump. Minor Threat’s lead singer/Straight Edge leader Ian McKaye holding a dented microphone, as short-haired boys circle and join him in singing. Four shiny chicken wings crawling with flies and arranged to form a swastika (Right-Winged). We see Henry Rollins in various mutations, including a photo of his first LA gig with Black Flag. Orange County’s hardcore scene—which deserves its own Colver exhibition—makes two appearances in a very young, guy-linered Mike Ness from Social Distortion and a close-up of his guitar.
And that’s just a few of them.
I always enjoy Colver’s work, but what’s missing for this critic is a narrative to give the work context. The posted information is scant, with just the name of the picture or assemblage and the date. Since young people experiencing this secondhand are the likely audience, I think a valuable teachable moment is being lost.
Punk rock represented many things to those involved in it, and even a remedial discussion of the time period, the fashion, the DIY tilt to the music, the violence within the culture and the oppressive nature outside the culture would offer insight. While the quality of the assemblages suggests Colver has moved on to a different medium and may just want to let the pictures speak for themselves, many of the photos are already 20-plus years old and Colver’s in his early 60s. As someone in the eye of the storm, he’s gotta be a treasure trove of information; it would be invaluable to have his insight into the individual photographs as a matter of record.
As a source of political information, an outlet for rebellion, a new art form or an alternative family, punk rock was a life-changing experience for many of us. It’s important that its ideals be shared and explained, so it can’t be used as just another form of “old-school” nostalgia.
“The Eye of the LA Punk Scene” at the Hibbleton Gallery, 223 W. Santa Fe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 441-1504; www.hibbleton.com. Open Fri.-Sun., 1-5 p.m. Through Jan. 2. Free.
This article appeared in print as "In the Pit: ‘The Eye of the LA Punk Scene’ captures some of iconic photographer Edward Colver’s greatest hits, but offers little context."