Disturbing the edges of what we call art: Tim Johnson and punk, 2009

Tim Johnson’s interest in punk rock is manifested in prints, paintings, texts, photographs, super 8 films, musical performances, and collected recordings and ephemera. In a concentrated series of works made between 1979 and 1983, Johnson depicted Australian, English and American punk musicians and fans, using his own photographs or pictures from the music press. In numerous images, ranging from small screenprints to large canvases, iconic bands—Sex Pistols, Radio Birdman and The Saints—rubbed shoulders with more obscure acts—Electric Fanz, Thought Criminals, Filth, Psychosurgeons—and legendary ‘faces’ of the London punk scene.

This sustained and extensive engagement with the musical underground suggests that Johnson’s interests went beyond punk’s striking visual culture. At its best, punk’s spirit of independence transcended sartorial effrontery and tabloid scandal; it articulated a corrosive disdain for the culture industry, and embodied a determination to maintain complete creative control. These were values that Johnson had previously declared in the first half of the 1970s, especially in activities at Inhibodress Gallery and the Contemporary Art Society. He admired Sydney band, Radio Birdman, because they re-affirmed such values in rock music: ‘by taking their destiny in their own hands and working outside the system. In other words, the system didn’t stamp their creativity out of them. They were fiercely independent’. 1 Even after images of punk bands faded from Johnson’s art in the mid 1980s, his practice still echoed punk’s tactics. Johnson’s self-published catalogues, cheaply priced paintings and self-recorded CDs have a kinship with the do-it-yourself philosophy of punk.

The punk works marked a significant transition in Johnson’s oeuvre. They allowed him to reconnect with painting, without losing sight of his early conceptual practices, and to avoid the more simplistic rhetoric of the so-called return to figuration. The punk works condensed into prints and paintings Johnson’s inter-media practices of the early 1970s—‘music, language, sound, publication, film, video and performance’—the goal of which he declared as ‘disturbing the edges of what we call art’. 2 Simultaneously, the punk works allowed him to develop the formal strategies he would later use to combine figure and all-over patterning in the ‘molecular’ surfaces of the Papunya, Eastern and Sioux paintings of the 1980s.

Johnson himself plotted the formal character of this transition as a passage from ‘Sequential overlay (printing process etc)’ through ‘Superimposition (opposed to narrative accumulation)’, and eventually to ‘Molecular surface opposed to continuous linking of elements—either by association or by being joined’. 3, Union Street Gallery, Pyrmont, NSW, 1985, p 3.]The first stage is evident in the punk works; the images were sequenced laterally across landscape-proportioned fields and printed using silkscreens and stencils. The largest punk paintings—such as No more heroes (1979) and New music (1979)—are structured by grids, with each cell devoted to a band or portrait. They ask to be read like the page of a book (left to right, top to bottom) and imply a symbolic or narrative connection, however idiosyncratic, between (in the case of No more heroes) Che Guevara, Jimi Hendrix, Mao Zedong, Jesus Christ, Buddha and Sid Vicious.

The second stage appears in more elaborate prints, such as Sex Pistols (1979) and Radio Birdman (1979). Multiple images, varying in scale and density of detail, are collaged across the field. The effect is by turns familiar—Sex Pistols reads as crudely pasted-up pages from a fanzine—and disconcerting—various versions of the Radio Birdman print present three or four clusters of the same musicians in different poses and proportions. The final stage is achieved in the all-over dotted fields of the mid-1980s Papunya paintings; here, a formal and symbolic syncretism is established as the human figure, landscape motifs and spiritual symbols emerge from a shimmering optical surface. Having commenced with the crude and expressive figures of punk musicians in 1979, Johnson could declare in 1985 that he had achieved ‘Reduced expression. Flattening the illusion of depth by taking away perspective and visual clues to depth’—the result being that the ‘Image is dissolved into a field of colour’. 4

The punk works suggest another transition, beyond Johnson’s resolution of a set of formal or semantic problems of his own devising—the tangled and often contradictory transition from the high modernism of late 1960s colour field painting to the hybrid cultural and visual spaces of postmodernism. Johnson’s grids, silkscreens and compressed space invoke an effect that American critic Leo Steinberg declared a harbinger of Postmodernism: the ‘flatbed’ painting, an optical field shaped by the reproduction technology and formal values of the mass media. 5 In Johnson’s punk works, the pop music pin-up of the fan’s bedroom wall intrudes into the visual space of Modernism; pure fields of colour are corrupted by the presence of the figure, the photograph and mass culture. But Johnson doesn’t entirely abandon colour field painting’s preference for optical, rather than perspectival or narrative space. The grounds for most punk works are intensely coloured, unmodulated fields. The musicians and fans hover in an indeterminate space, rarely anchored by perspective or linked in a narrative chain. Repeating the human figure across the field, Johnson made it a unit of formal activity: scale and placement, rather than the precise identity of a figure, are the prime movers of the image.

This effect is even more pronounced in Johnson’s source documentation. In his super 8 film Punk bands, available light—the stage spots—resulted in a black ground splashed with occasional pools of colour, against which silhouetted singers bounced and posed. Like the prints, the film presented figures adrift. Formalism met figuration, colour field met pop art, and photographic documentation met abstraction.

The hybridity of the punk works was emphasised in Johnson’s later plan of the genealogy of twentieth-century modernism which was made in a personal sketchbook. Across the page, scattered columns made loose connections between broadly divergent cultural streams. Perhaps the most telling was the ‘constructivism, dada, surrealism, futurism, cubism’ cluster, linked by a descending arrow to ‘avant-garde, punk’. But other milestones are equally revealing. ‘Flatness’ appears twice, against both ‘abstract expressionism’ and ‘documentation’. Neo-expressionism’s bluff was called, with notes identifying it as ‘mainstream’. The formalist agenda remained alive: the ‘problem of edge of painting still unresolved’. 6

Johnson’s punk works chart a personal reading of modernism’s trajectory. They show his struggle to establish a firm footing in 1970s pluralism, where earlier practices were declared prematurely dead and the birth of postmodernism was announced with unseemly haste. For this reason, Johnson’s punk works were remarkably open. They combined the colour fields of formalism with pop art’s mechanical repetition of mass cultural icons and Johnson’s distinctive syncretic mysticism in the early 1980s. Indeed, Johnson soon turned his attention to a new community, the Papunya settlement, and enlarged the lessons of the punk works into his unique syncretic cosmos. In some punk paintings, Papunya-style dots depict a spotlight halo around Radio Birdman frontman Rob Younger’s head.

The preceding narrative, which establishes the punk paintings as a way station on the road from Modernism to Postmodernism, is constructed after the fact. Therefore both this discussion and the artist’s recorded comments date to the mid 1980s, when Postmodernism rested on the dismissal of formalism, the ineluctable presence of the media, and an urgent need to re-legitimate the figure in art. But what did punk mean when Johnson began the series?

In 1976, before the Sex Pistols’ adventures in the tabloids made punk a household word, the term had diverse meanings. In colloquial American English, it referred to jailhouse trash, street ruffians or something of little value. Which is probably why Radio Birdman’s American-born guitarist, Deniz Tek, declared: ‘I ain’t no punk by any sense of the word’. 7 But almost simultaneously, the Australian music press began to use punk to refer to raw and authentic rock’n’roll, music from the streets that put corporate rock to shame. 8

More to the point was the emerging association of punk with art. Radio Birdman’s home turf, the Oxford Tavern, Darlinghurst, was populated by ‘a mixture of students, punks, bikies and a smattering of trendies on the prowl for Something Real’. 9 Before long, punk had ‘overtones of outlaw and fringe existence’—a kind of downtown bohemianism. 10 Radio Birdman moved in a circle of artists, musicians, non-conformists and activists which Deniz Tek later called the ‘art underground’. 11 Johnson was quick to see the connection with his own experience. He had a strong interest in popular music, and music and audio experimentation was central to the 1970s avant-garde in Sydney. 12 Found and fabricated music, in the tradition of John Cage, had featured at Inhibodress and, through David Ahern, had a following at Sydney College of the Arts. 13

Exploring the genealogy and etymology of punk is not for the faint of heart; I still have fond memories of Legs McNeill, author of Please kill me (2006), a history of New York punk, ending an email rant about the evils of academia with the request that I ‘Please fuck off’. But it is worth dwelling on the meaning of punk for Australian artists precisely because English punk was so evasive and American so unquestioning. In England, punk’s art school roots were carefully shielded behind a rhetoric of street authenticity and working class bohemianism. While three of the four members of The Clash had attended art school, the band dismissed art as ‘a load of bollocks’. 14 On the other hand, in the United States, especially in New York, it was assumed that punk had a natural affiliation with the downtown literary, fashion and art scenes: as commentator Lisa Robinson remarked ‘the look is art, as well as the sound’.15

Australian music fans, artists among them, gleaned what they could from imported magazines and records, and developed substantial expectations. Punk appeared to promise an efflorescence of bands and venues, a politically and socially engaged music, the overthrow of an ossified music business, and a return to the raw power of rock‘n’roll. A tall order in hindsight, but Johnson’s punk paintings must be read in terms of what it was hoped punk might be, not what it ultimately became. Particularly on Australia’s east coast, there were strong connections between experimental rock’n’roll and art schools, some purely social (pub rock being a focus of youth culture in the late 1970s), others aspirational and strategic.

John Nixon recalls attending Melbourne’s punk venues with a ‘gang of about 30’ staff and students from art schools, among them Gareth Sansom, Jenny Watson and Tony Clark.16 Others recall stumbling on pub rock venues and discovering a hub for social activities. 17 Vivienne Shark LeWitt, then an art student, saw punk as an answer to the dead weight of the art world. She declared in March 1978: ‘I want something absolutely new, exciting, rebellious and futile … As long as it’s refreshing. Art is a quagmire of ideas. The whole scene is like a tepid bath full of dirty water and a clogged drain keeps everything in. 18

Punk seemed to offer all the energy, challenge and attitude that art had lost: ‘it is shrewdly intelligent, surprisingly articulate, witty, threatening, curiously repellent yet magnetic, radical, inventive and has proved innovative in the spheres of music, philosophy, the visual arts, theatre, film, typography and fashion.’ 19

Shark LeWitt was writing from Tasmania. Further to the north, in Brisbane, a small punk scene took pride in the early international triumph of The Saints’ independently released single ‘(I’m) Stranded’, and defined their cultural identity in opposition to the oppressively conservative political regime of then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Here art, punk and personal politics met in a scene uniting artists, architects, poets and social outcasts. 20 The Saints’ guitarist Ed Kuepper issued the classic bohemian mission statement in 1977: ‘We’re trying to kick out restrictions, repressive social systems, crummy governments, social circles, imbeciles, complacency, apathy, hippies, squares, farts. You name it, we want to kick it out’. 21

For other artists, punk was a form of authorisation; it gave them license to challenge conventions and the freedom to experiment. Embracing Melbourne’s punk scene as a student, Jon Cattapan recalled, ‘We felt like anybody could get up and have a go at it’. Punk was about style, ambition and aspiration: That whole idea of the neo-expressionist moment—the return to painting—was, I think, for a lot of us, tied very strongly to the punk example of knowing three chords and having a go at it. They didn’t have to be finely articulated. They didn’t have to be sophisticated. You just had to get out there and find a way of doing it.’ 22

Punk’s methods were as attractive as the music itself. Independent record labels offered the tantalising promise of complete control over the creative product. New media channels, such as photocopied fanzines and student-run FM radio, sidestepped the mainstream media. Bands persuaded publicans to let them book their own gigs, breaking the monopoly of the major booking agencies.

Sydney’s Radio Birdman was a model of such independence. They managed their own venue, the Funhouse at the Oxford Tavern; they recorded, advertised and distributed their own records and established a culture of independence that was to shape venues, the music press, labels and record stores into the early 1980s. As Vivien Johnson noted in her history of the band, ‘They operated as artists working in the medium of rock and roll, setting their own standards and acutely aware of the context in which their work was presented’. 23

These attitudes underpin Tim Johnson’s punk works. The significant difference between Johnson’s experience of punk and that of (mainly younger) artists is that, for him, it reaffirmed existing attitudes rather than launching new ones. This can be traced in the bands Johnson depicted in his punk works. The prominence of Radio Birdman is not surprising; a committed fan, he continued to depict the various offshoots that arose after the band’s implosion in 1978—The Visitors, The Other Side, New Race. Radio Birdman’s distinctive logo—a flying saucer within a ‘cartouche’ derived from Native American body decoration—consistently appeared in his paintings through the 1980s and 1990s.

The Saints also appear regularly: like Radio Birdman, they had achieved international recognition. Punk, for Johnson, marked ‘the first time Australian bands ranked equal to overseas bands’ 24 Fans of The Easybeats might disagree, but it is not surprising that artists like Johnson, who had cut his teeth during the internationalism of Conceptual art and the fraught era of Australia’s ‘provincialism problem’, took heart from The Saints’ success. The Thought Criminals also figured frequently in Johnson’s 1970s punk works. Their anti-commercial sentiments, stated bluntly in their 1978 release, ‘I won’t pay (for punk records)’, were similar to Johnson’s oft-stated objections to the commercial art market. They too achieved the structural independence admired by artists, starting their own record label called Doublethink and nurturing a small stable of independent bands.

Flier for Filth gig, not dated.

Flier for Filth gig, not dated.

Other bands of the era, like X and World War IV—seen in prints like Bands I (1979)—embodied the raw, do-it-yourself spirit of punk. Johnson’s source image for World War IV (from the fanzine Self abuse) shows the band performing in the recreation room of the Albion Street juvenile remand centre (the square patterns behind the band are noticeboards and a wall-mounted television set). The band Filth (identifiable in Bands II (1979)by the word ‘Bob’ that labelled one band member in the Self abuse source image) were attractive because of their determination to confront complacency. Described as the most despised band in Sydney, Filth invited attendance to a gig with a flier denouncing the so-called contentment of the Sydney punk scene: ‘I hate you punks, you’re just the same as those you fought . . . You’re the arseholes who killed punk. We’re better off without you’. 25 The Psychosurgeons, also vying for the most despised title, delivered a type of punk performance art at their gigs, abusing audiences and splattering them with animal blood.

All of these punk tactics of the late 1970s—confronting performance, structural independence, intermedia practices—had been pursued by Tim Johnson in the first half of the decade. For younger artists, punk was a moment of initiation’; for Johnson, it was an opportunity to present in more concrete terms an idea he had already declared in 1971. So the story of his punk works should be told in reverse and end at the beginning. Prior to punk’s emergence we can see not only why the attraction was almost inevitable, but also why Johnson saw it as such a logical extension of his practice.

Johnson always regarded himself as a painter. His conceptual and performance practice made for a brief hiatus, but by 1973 he had taken up painting once more. Painting grew out of photographic documentation and performance: ‘I was using painting to document, and putting the performance into the process of painting’. 26 The return to painting was a conceptual exercise rather than a ‘reaction against’ Conceptual art: ‘I was trying to conceptualize my painting and to find ways of doing things with it that I had previously done with conceptual art’. 27 For Johnson, ‘painting was a record of my performance and this was constructed like a piece of music’. 28 This was not what led him, in 1976 and 1977, to paint musicians. It was more that the painting was a kind of documentation that could be seen as, or nominated as, a performance or installation: ‘An artwork can be made about actions that are themselves artworks in a life-based sense’. 29 In his 1971 text, Out of the gallery installation as conceptual scheme, Johnson suggested that aspects of the real world could be appropriated and presented as ‘idea installations’ which ‘draw on involvement with human affairs (e.g. the Sydney art scene or my circle of friends)’. 30

While they commenced eight years after this text was published, the punk works articulate a similar fusion of installation, conceptual art and social space. Johnson was always drawn to music, especially blues and rock. His model of the idea installation led him to document social situations as a kind of found art work, in which certain distinctive actions or objects were separated momentarily from the ‘ground’ of reality. In pub rock venues he found a close involvement with ‘human affairs’, a tight-knit community of fans and true believers whom Vivien Johnson likened to a tribe. His own participation—performances with Vivien in The Realists and The Dadaists—was advertised as ‘conceptual’ bands. Making paintings of bands, appropriating photographs from fanzines, and even borrowing silkscreen stencils from bands, Johnson distilled into small paintings not only the values and behaviour of the scene but also his own ambition for ‘the extension of installation to all areas of experience’. 31 The punk works embody the ‘installation as conceptual scheme’ and they declare Johnson’s identity as a conceptual painter. At the same time, by investing the process with images of an active, independent cultural community, Tim Johnson established a pattern that would continue in his paintings of the next decades.

Original publication: ‘Disturbing the edges of what we call art: Tim Johnson and punk’, in Tim Johnson: Painting ideas, Queensland Art Gallery/Art Gallery of NSW, 2009, pp 20-27.

  1. Tim Johnson, in Peter Cripps, Interviews, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1986, p 21.
  2. Cripps, Interviews, p 18.
  3. Tim Johnson, Over the top of the in field [exhibition catalogue
  4. Johnson, Over the top of the in field, p 1.
  5. First discussed in Leo Steinberg, ‘Reflections on the state of criticism’, Artforum, March 1972, pp 37–49.
  6. All quotations from notes by Tim Johnson in an undated journal. I am grateful to him for providing these. Typescript excerpts from the notes were published in Over the top of the in field, 1985.
  7. Denis Tek, ‘Letter’, RAM, no.28, 26 March 1976, p 39.
  8. See Anthony O’Grady, ‘AC/DC: Australia has punk rock bands too y’know’, RAM, no.4, 19 April 1975, pp.11 and 15; and Anthony O’Grady, ‘The death of punk rock’, RAM, no 28, 26 March 1976, pp 22 and 36.
  9. Anthony O’Grady, ‘Radio Birdman’, RAM, no 26, 27 February 1976, p 25.
  10. Anthony O’Grady, ‘World-wide punk’, RAM, no 50, 28 January 1977, p 21.
  11. Vivien Johnson, Radio Birdman, Sheldon Booth, St Kilda, Vic., 1990, p 29.
  12. This and many other observations arose in an interview with Tim Johnson on 26 May 2000, Sydney. I am grateful to Tim Johnson for generous participation.
  13. See Sue Cramer (ed.), Inhibodress 1970–1972, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1989; and Tim Johnson, ‘An impossible vision: conceptual art in the ’70s’, On the Beach, no 9, 1985, pp 10–11.
  14. Paul Simonon, quoted in Jolly, ‘The Clash’, Punk, no 17, May 1979, reprinted in John Holstrom (ed.), Punk: the original, Trans High Publishing, New York, 1996, p116.
  15. Lisa Robinson, ‘The way we wore’, New Musical Express, 3 January 1976, p 9.
  16. Interview with John Nixon, 17 January 1998.
  17. See Chris McAuliffe, ‘Let’s talk about art: art and punk in Melbourne’, Art and Australia, vol 34, no 4, 1997, pp 502–12.
  18. The comment is made in a diary entry dated 17 March 1978, included in an artist’s book held in the National Gallery of Australia, Never mind the exhibition, here’s the problems, 1978, NGA Acc. no. 1980.3818.1. and 1980.3818.2.
  19. Vivienne Shark LeWitt, ‘So this is real life?: the continuing dissensions of new wave music’, The Tasmanian Review, no 1, June 1979, p 11.
  20. A scene explored in the exhibition, ‘The Brisbane Sound’, curated David Pestorius at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, January 2008.
  21. Andrew McMillan, ‘Dirty deeds’n’haloes don’t mix, do they?’, RAM, no 53, 11 March 1977, p 21.
  22. The comment alludes to a famous article in an English punk fanzine Sideburns (December 1976), consisting of three chord diagrams for a guitar captioned with the exhortation, ‘Now form a band’.
  23. Johnson, Radio Birdman, p.82.
  24. Cripps, Interviews, p 21.
  25. Bob Short, Pete, Elvis and Noel, flier for Filth gig at the Alexandria Hotel (undated), viewed at www.nonightsweats.com.au.
  26. Nicholas Zurbrugg, ‘Tim Johnson interviewed’, Art and Australia, vol 29, no 1, Spring 1991, pp 44–51.
  27. Cripps, Interviews, p 18.
  28. Cripps, Interviews, p 18.
  29. Tim Johnson, Notes (exhibition catalogue), Erskine Street Gallery, Sydney, 1976, unpaginated.
  30. Tim Johnson, Out of the Gallery Installation as Conceptual Scheme, self-published, 1971, p 6.
  31. Tim Johnson, Out of the Gallery Installation as Conceptual Scheme, self-published, 1971, p 6.

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