Shotgun Review

Transformer

By Gibson Cuyler December 16, 2009

Joe Rees is back from the dead. I’ve been told he had been hiding out in Reno for what seems like forever.  The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 seemed like a sign sent from somewhere to signal a distinct change in the punk rock music scene of California, as it destroyed Rees’ infamous Target studio on Van Ness Avenue.  As he left San Francisco, Rees took with him to Reno one of the most distinctive archives of punk rock video footage in existence.  He was one of the first kids on his block, and in the city, to get a portable video camera in the mid 1970s. He put this camera to use immediately by making videos of bands such as the Cramps, Black Flag, the Germs, Diamanda Galas, and even Crime, who played San Quentin in sheriff uniforms with a very brave female go-go dancer. You don’t see videos like this very often or actually, really ever, until now. These and other works are currently on view in “Transformer” at Steven Wolf Fine Arts in San Francisco.

The earthquake cruelly took most of Rees’ neon sculptures and constructs.  For this show, Rees generously re-created the past for our present viewing pleasure by fabricating some sculptures once again. Rees’ Neon Table and Chair, circa 1975, occupy the main space of the gallery and are an arresting work of shockingly red neon. Another neon work titled, Crucifix, transfixed me. I was in awe of the piece’s subtlety and power in which the western Christian cross is formed on the wall of the gallery through the shadows cast by a simple neon tube box construct.  A personal highlight was watching video projections of a young Henry Rollins, and Black Flag, playing in what might be the most brightly lit punk show ever held at the Target studio. This is art born from a specific and very seminal time and place in American music and attitude.

Neon Table & Chair, 1975 (2009); 7mm neon gas tubing, 48 x 40 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.

Crucifix, 1975 (2009); neon gas & tubing, 15 x 15 x 15 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.

What Steven Wolf and Joe Rees have brought back to life is an important cultural record that would otherwise be tragically lost. Rees is in possession of many more videos from the California punk scene that were originally made with cutting edge technology, but now need to be digitally converted and corrected to view.  I am hoping Rees is able to do this so a whole new generation can marvel at what happened in music and art during this time. While some people mistakenly use the term “punk rock” freely to describe things they think are edgy or cool, one needs to look no further than Rees’ neon sculptures and video projections to understand what punk rock truly is.

"Transformer" is on view at Steven Wolf Fine Arts in San Francisco through December 24, 2009.

 

Gibson Cuyler is an artist and musician who lives and works in Oakland.

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