Punk rock’s creative and savage legacy at Subliminal Projects gallery

Today, you can’t escape punk rock — the style, iconography and chord changes are as accessible as Hot Topic and top-40 radio. But punk continues to draw its power from the scene of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, particularly here in Southern California, and to build on its legacy as a savage underground protest music and an art movement that refused to be defined by money.

On Friday, art gallery Subliminal Projects opens a new show of photography, art and ephemera called “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die,” which throws open the chaotic energy of an early punk scene that included such bands as Black Flag, the Minutemen, Redd Kross, Bad Religion, the Germs and others.

“The skate kids are still skating to it. The surfer kids are still surfing to it,” said Keith Morris, legendary singer for a band core to the movement, Circle Jerks, and his new band, OFF! “A majority of the bands that are on the Warped Tour wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for [those] bands.”

Photos of Joan Jett and Lita Ford playing dueling guitars, troubled Germs front man Darby Crash, tattooed Black Flag singer Henry Rollins and depictions of legendary Hollywood club the Masque share wall space in the exhibit with Dead Kennedy’s cover artist Winston Smith’s surreal collages and Raymond Pettibon’s chilly anti-establishment illustrations. Shepard Fairey is contributing collaborative art pieces with photographer Glen E. Friedman and Pettibon. “Punk rock made me feel that you did not have to be a technical virtuoso to make powerful art,” said Fairey, who was a young skateboarder in South Carolina when the scene was making its mark.


From the ground up, the show aims to artistically evoke the anarchy and extemporaneous quality of a period punk club. Author and designer Bryan Ray Turcotte, who has published two books of vintage flyers, set lists and poster art, including “Punk Is Dead, Punk Is Everything,” will staple the space with hundreds of fliers from his personal collection. “I’m going to crinkle them up a little bit so they peel off telephone-pole style,” he said. “I want to walk in and feel like it’s authentic to punk and the DIY aesthetic and not so much like a Westside gallery.”

That utilitarian ethic is echoed by the majority of the work in the exhibit. Morris pointed out that the photos and designs on display were originally intended for anything but a traditional gallery setting. “We didn’t have a lot of money… so our best form of advertising would have been photos showing up in fanzines, or fliers.”

It’s only fitting that an art show commemorating a volatile, grass-roots music scene should be rough around the edges. “A lot of those shows were total chaos,” said Edward Colver, one of five photographers included in the exhibit.

Colver, who is known for his stark, black-and-white shots of Southern California’s hard-core, punk-rock explosion, braved flying beer bottles and stage divers’ boots to capture some of the most energetic live shots from the scene. “I was out on an average of five nights a week for five years shooting pictures,” he said. “I would go to two shows a night. I lived and breathed it.”

The opening reception will feature a DJ set from Fairey, plus live performances by OFF! and Pettibon’s experimental band, Nichemakers. “It’s a weird band,” said Jonny Cournoyer, the act’s guitarist as well as the show’s co-curator. “We have strange trumpet solos and weird changes and a couple of mimes that appear every now and then. People don’t actually know what they’re seeing but they know that it’s real rock ‘n’ roll because you never know what’s going to happen.”

It may be true, as Colver said, that “you can’t go through a day without hearing punk nowadays,” but the era of explosive creativity depicted in the exhibit remains as relevant as all great artistic rebellions. “It’s like all the great mind-sets and movements that change societies,” Cournoyer said. “It’s about not bowing down to conformity or any kind of corruption. Not to get too cheesy, but it’s about that search for everyday truth, and human emotion and expression in its rawest form.”

Morris added, “We weren’t standing around, looking into the future, because our future was right now. We were running at 100 miles an hour. We never tried to look ahead, and say, ‘Well, 25 years from now this picture, this flier, this drawing, this photo, is going to be hanging on a wall in a gallery somewhere.’ ”