Weekly updates:

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Weekly updates

While the celebration, and subsequent commodification, of underground art seems second nature today, there was a time when lowbrow and highbrow lived in completely different area codes, with highbrow rarely leaving its gated community. Cut to today, and it’s commonplace for underground artists to exhibit within fine art institutions, whilst also having their work over in the land of the lowbrow via album artwork or ‘collabs’ with credible brands. Underground perhaps isn’t an accurate term for such artists anymore, or maybe it just doesn’t mean what it used to, at any rate, such artists can now make a living from their talent and if you wanna hate on that, you’re most likely more puerile than purist.

Gary Panter: What kind of paint do you use in your paintings? I think they are on canvas on stretchers?

Todd James: I use gouache on paper with graphite a lot but I started making oil paintings on canvas. I was just making one earlier. What do you use?

GP: I like gouache. I started using it on a project with Christian Schumann a few years ago. Now I use it a lot for small paper pieces. My medium sized and big paintings are all acrylic on canvas. I switched from oil to acrylic in college and stayed with acrylic. My father paints in oils. Oils smell nice.

TJ: I know you use light in some of your projects. How did you get into that?

GP: I grew up in Texas in the ‘60s, far away from light shows and hippy be-ins, so I made my own little light shows in my garage in high school and have kept fooling around with lights and shadows in my studios ever since. Finally, I developed a small light show theatre when I was working on a puppet project with Peter Girardi, Chris Capuozzo and Ric Heitzman. That project led me to work on all kinds of light shows with Joshua White. It’s like painting or composing with light. I’ll follow any intriguing idea and see where it goes.

TJ: What are your top five psychedelic rock songs and what songs do you play with Devin and Ross (Ed: Gary’s band)? Devin says you guys eat a lot of junk food in the sessions. Is that something that you do when you’re home or is it part of the jam process mostly? I’m not as informed about psychedelic rock as you but I love Dr Doom by Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators.

GP: That’s a tough one. I’d say:

1. Old Man Going – The Pretty Things
2. I am the Walrus – Beatles
3. My Clown – July
4. Woody Woodpecker Symphony – The Beach Boys
5. Rose of Smiling Faces – The Freak Scene

I don’t get out much, so the weekly band practice with Devin and Ross is allowed to be a little excessive. I am pretty boring; chocolate milk and cookies are about all the excitement I need. Being in the band is great. We share music and ideas and try to make stuff and learn new stuff. Devin and Ross are much better players than me, so I am learning bit by bit how to contribute to the sounds. We know about forty songs by now and we do improvisations based on them and mix them up. Tunes like: Telstar by Joe Meek, Frenzy by the Fugs, The Icecaps are Melting by Tiny Tim, Johnny Carson by the Beach Boys. Fun, weird, hippy stuff we can take apart. The 13th Floor Elevators are great. You’re Gonna Miss Me is a cool song.

TJ: I saw you guys play a few times and it was really good.

GP: Thanks! Speaking of music, do you work with music or TV or silence, or what? Is it hard to get into work or do you just get right into it?

TJ: I mostly listen to music or like, the History Channel. Sometimes I listen to things on repeat or in blocks. I made one group of these war paintings while listening to really kind of mellow ‘70s easy listening rock, like If Only You Believe in Miracles by, I think it’s Jefferson Starship, or Sailing by Avant. The lyrics to that are so insane. Metal and rap are what I used to go see shows of growing up and I still go see metal and I listen to that when I work sometimes but I end up getting into other stuff like gospel and country like The Souls Stirrers or The Louvine Brothers. Right now, I’m on a Lady Gaga trip. I played Call of Duty on Xbox Live one night just dominating fools ‘til four am with Paparazzi on repeat.

In terms of my work, sometimes I can jump right in or I find myself into something without thinking and sometimes it takes some time. When it takes time I try to make small things to get going or look at old stuff. Sometimes I need to look at my stuff to remember how to do it, like reference myself. Sketchbooks are great for going back for painting ideas and I have a lot of those.

I saw that talk you did with Peter Saul. We both like his stuff. I wonder what music he likes?

GP: Peter Saul seems to be into solid PAINTING. I think that’s what is mostly on his mind and he is very enthusiastic about painting. He doesn’t play any musical instruments. I think he likes country music okay. I asked him about books he’s read and he says he has a big library and when he is waiting for the paint to dry, he goes into the library and opens a book at random and reads to get ideas.

TJ: I don’t think I could read at random. Do you look at much contemporary art, if so, what do you like?

GP: I read Frieze and Cabinet and Artforum every month or when they come out. I go to Chelsea sometimes, but I have a habit of staying in my studio and working all the time and missing many shows. Perhaps my artistic taste is stuck in the 20th century. There are a few artists’ work I don’t like, but I like a lot of stuff from the cubists, surrealists, dada, op, pop, colourfield, minimal abstraction, earthart, ab-ex, weird figurative work, folk art.

TJ: What was the first fine art that knocked you out, if that happened?

GP: I was knocked out by Kline and Pollock in the Dallas Museum of Fine Art when I was a teen.

TJ: Yeah, fine art knocking me out, let me think… Well I saw some Jeff Koons’ stuff, the Bubbles and Michael Jackson and other stuff in Soho when I was still only doing graffiti and it made me think how I could some day in the future fabricate my name in different ways. My friend Damon turned me onto Peter Saul and Basquiat. That’s knock out stuff. I really like George Condo. Nothing knocked me out like subway graffiti though, that was just magnetic. Then there are things I see that I initially hate or sense that I don’t get, which I find are usually the things worth investigating.

GP: You are friends with Peter and Chris (who used to write Eros and Sub5) from making art in the street and trains? How is making furtive or public signs and images different from working in a studio? Is it a separate art or idea process? For example, I make comics and paint paintings and the two activities don’t have much to do with each other.

TJ: We met through that world but we both stopped painting trains but still had an interest in it and similar tastes. I painted with a different group of people like Pure or Ghost but we had friends in common. Painting graffiti is different because there’s no curator or publisher, you have go out and make it, maybe you have to travel far to make it under pressure in 30 min to three hours. The only critiques that come close to a review come in the form of being imitated or having your work destroyed by your peers. I have made art shows that involve that world like Street Market with Steve Power and Barry McGee but mostly it is a separate world. I have a lot of separate worlds and I like them that way. When I make paintings now in the studio it’s totally different, but my personality is the kind of constant thing that you can see. I guess that’s the bridge or the constant thread.

For more of Gary Panter’s work visit here and for Todd James click here.

 This interview first appeared in #21 the FRIENDS issue. You can purchase it here.