Visionary Persistence by Frank Thurston Green

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Josh   Gary Body

Photo courtesy of the artists.

Gary Panter is a painter, a creator of extremely unconventional comic books, and a draughtsman of the images in his mind. He was the set designer of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He has said he would sculpt more than he does but he knows how much space that would take up; there’s a gorgeous humility about his practicality.

Joshua White is the founder of the Joshua Light Show, which produced the famed and extraordinarily gnarly backdrops behind dozens of rock and roll luminaries at the Fillmore East and points west. He and Panter have been collaborating on light shows for years now.

I met Panter and White at Eisenberg’s, an old time Jewish deli in the Flatiron District in Manhattan. White ordered a tuna fish sandwich with an iced tea and a chocolate milkshake. Panter had a BLT and a Diet Pepsi.

Joshua White Now let’s get something straight here: Mr. White is my late father. I’m Josh. I apologize for being late. I’m the one that lives eight blocks away so of course it comes with the territory. I have to be late.

Gary Panter There was a flat on the unicycle.

JW Yeah. There was a flat on my segway.

Frank Thurston Green Do you really have a segway?

JW No.

FTG Where did modern light shows start?

JW It really began in cities a little less uptight than New York in terms of rules and regulations, because New York city was a tough place to work; it was hard to open a big club with the gangsters and payoffs. These big ballrooms opened up where people could wander around and the band would come out and play a great, loud set and there was a very strong need for something visual. The mirrored ball just wasn’t enough. And so there was the development of the light show, initially, to really fill up the space with something that was a nice experience for people similar to the audio experience they were having.

I got involved when it came to New York and it was much more disciplined; my specific job in New York City was to provide something behind the performers because it was a theater—the responsibility of the light show was very different. We couldn’t take an old cartoon and show it upside down for two hours and get away with it, we had to do something much more complicated. The performers only did so much; a lot of them played with their heads down, with their backs to the audience because they were into the playing. So we were there to provide something for their eyes, and we learned very quickly that the more abstract, the better.

GP It really is an equivalent to jazz in a way. Improvisational, fugitive performance where you’re responding sympathetically to the music, and then the audience fills up the gap. They provide the closure relating the music to the light. Their minds start organizing it, even hallucinating it. People see things in the show that we don’t do.

JW Synesthesia.

FTG Is that when people hear sounds for colors or something?

GP It’s the commingling of the senses.

JW It’s when you’re hearing something and seeing something and you tend to put it together. It’s why if you show a silent movie and you play any kind of music people will tend to synchronize it. It’s a natural human trait. The mind wants to synchronize. If the music goes to great places and the imagery stays loose and allows you to interpret it yourself, then you’ll have synesthesia.

FTG So can you do no wrong?

JW We can do no wrong. We can screw up. But no, we can’t do any wrong. I have never done any wrong. I’m proud to say that; part of me is always in the audience. It’d be selfish. It’s not about us.

FTG How would you be selfish back there?

JW I can only give you negative examples. I’ve seen light shows where the person doing the light show, while skilled, is so stoned doing it that as he would be moving slides around and images that he would get so into it that I’d notice he wasn’t actually moving. And he was seeing a great light show, but he forgot to actually perform. And the ultimate sin is not listening to the music. The music builds up to an amazing crescendo and stops and the light show keeps going. That to me is—never. And other things; where you’re so anxious to get the light show up on the screen, either front or rear, when you’re just turning projectors on and you don’t have control of it.

I’ve developed this hatred of rectangles. Not rectangles per se, but essentially all projectors put out a rectangle. And I’m looking at a bunch of rectangles. And no matter what’s going inside the rectangle is sort of dominating the design, and that does not need to happen. You don’t see a rectangle [in our light shows]. If the projector is too small to hit the screen and fill it then there’s usually something matting it into a circle, an oval, or something abstract.

GP Or it’s pointing away and some fragment of its being bounced back. But the wrong you can do is just not paying attention. It’s like being in a band and not listening to the other musicians. When we’re performing a small show, or especially a large show, there’re ten people in your earphones talking to each other the whole time. And Josh is leading, or orchestrating, but we have a certain amount of freedom.

JW In the arts, you really need to be listening.

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All photos by Corine Vermeulen, courtesy of MOCAD, unless otherwise indicated.

GP It’s painting with light, and it’s generally abstract. And for me, I’m a painter, so painting with light or painting with pigment or whatever, it’s exciting to me to compose things and do it in real time—it’s an unusual situation. Usually painters are working alone, moving paint in their room. And I don’t know if I’d want to paint with eight other people at the same time, but with light it’s really fun. We know what we’re gonna do, we just don’t know how we’re gonna do it because we haven’t heard the music. So we listen, and then we use the tools at hand to improvise around the music.

Sometimes we perform with live bands and we’ve either heard their records or we haven’t. But you go into the situation like they do because they’ve often never performed with a light show. So each group has to make their art and try to make a bridge.

JW In Germany before we did our show we had to carefully and discreetly tell the various band members, When you’re playing, look straight ahead. Don’t turn around and look at the light show because if you turn around and look at the light show you’re gonna get into the light show. And it’s literally 30 feet tall above your head and 40, feet 50 around you. Don’t look into the light, because you will be sorry. It’s powerful.

GP It takes a certain amount of trust.

JW (shrill, witchy) Don’t look into the light! Alright. I wanna see you guys eat, could you just eat some of that?

FTG I hope they didn’t forget my egg cream … how would light shows be different if people hadn’t gotten high?

JW The thing was people were high and they needed a visual experience. I saw The Doors perform in 1967 at an important concert in front of a black curtain with two follow-spots. They were at the height of their skills then, and there was nothing to look at but the two follow-spots. I have some wonderful film clips of the two follow-spots going like this (wild hand gestures_). The two guys doing the follow spots are desperate. And watching old television shows from the late ’60s and early ’70s when the music is so intense that the cameras are zooming in and out and the director is going like this (_wild hand gestures) and it’s awful. There was a need for an intensifying visual experience. If you come to the light show and you’re really stoned, I’m sorry. Because the light show is drugs.

FTG Gary, you said that if you hadn’t taken drugs that you would have kept doing art but that you would have been more single-minded and even more egotistical in making art.

GP I think that in taking acid and smoking pot and stuff you kind of step beside yourself and you have a different point of view of where you’re at. Like, Here I am, I think I’m this person, I think I’m doing this, I think blah blah blah blah. But if you step over here and you’re like, Oh I see, I’m really kind of pushing this really hard, I’m really gonna end up selling a lot of this or that, and maybe there’s another way. For me I was coming out of a super-fundamentalist Christian religion, so mostly I was trying to find a way to morally and ethically live without that. I pitched all of that, but now what am I going to do? I’m really a primitive from a little town in Texas. So then you find out where the ground is and where you want the ground to be underneath your feet.

JW And I was an upper-middle-class Jewish prince. I think drugs are great. Quote me on that. I think drugs are great. But only when you use them a little bit, for pleasure.

FTG Could you talk about the Rozz Tox Manifesto and exactly how sanguine you are about infiltrating the commercial world?

GP With the Rozz Tox Manifesto, I was reading a lot of manifestos and I was in art school, or after art school, and I wrote a satirical manifesto. It’s a satire of manifestos. Really, it’s a joke, but the premise is that ’70s animation for children was terrible. It was only businessmen, one sound effect, one soundtrack, one song played behind these cartoons, hundreds and hundreds of cartoons that were shown on television for kids that I thought were really poison.

FTG Poison how? Just because they were stupid?

GP Yeah. They were stupid. They weren’t about making any kind of art. They were just about making the product fast and getting it in front of kids and getting the money. The aesthetics and the story and the children didn’t matter. I think there were a lot of people interested in animation who were frustrated, and that they would come along and they would make better cartoons in the future, but I happened to be writing that satirical thing in a moment before Ren and Stimpy came along, before more interesting animation, before the Cartoon Network, before Liquid Television—

JW —before MTV!

GP Before MTV. I was hanging out with Matt Groening and we were talking about being fans of Frank Zappa, and we really admired the way that Frank Zappa brought ideas into the marketplace, into children’s and teenagers rooms, with reading lists and so on. We were interested in being people like that.

FTG Did that mean that you would be diluting what you were doing? I don’t know if you had more radical conceptions of the way society should be, if you were at all skeptical of engaging with capitalism like that, and that ideals would be diluted, sullied by entering into these channels for popular culture?

GP Well that was going to be a consequence. But capitalism wasn’t going to go anywhere. I mean, 1979, capitalism was not about to collapse and go away. So my point was you can protest capitalism or you can try to infiltrate these mediums and affect the quality of the art. Which could be art, even though it’s popular art. So if there was a serious part of it, it was that. But basically it was a satire. I was really shocked when people said I wanted to join the Art Police and stuff like that. I didn’t really want to have a brown shirt movement.

FTG For sure. But Rozz Tox could also be understood in a more moderate sense, saying, No, join the system. And there’s understandable skepticism about that.

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JW I joined the system. I literally left behind the world of the Fillmore and rock and roll. I went into television which was the system. And I pursued not Saturday morning cartoons, but certainly I wanted to work!

GP But the question you said, if you try to do art in the marketplace it is affected. What I discovered, even though I could get stylistic messages and influences into media, I quickly discovered that that’s where I had to operate to try to make a living. But I really had to solve people’s problems. So I couldn’t be only trying to get my insidious message through their art. That’s not really what it was.

FTG When you say “solve people’s problems,” what do you mean?

GP If someone hires me to sell their record, I want it to compete in the record bins. If someone wants me to do a book cover, I want it to pop off their bookshelves. If it’s commission work, I’m trying to please someone. If it’s personal work, I’m trying to do evolutionary work, I’m trying to evolve. But trying to help people sell tennis shoes—I’m trying to help people sell tennis shoes. But I do less and less of that. My commercial art—thankfully, that career has kind of fallen apart. It’s fun to be an illustrator, but it’s not what I was trying to do. I was always trying to be a fine artist.

JW And illustration is the keyword. Gary’s illustration is Josh’s equivalent of being a TV director. You’re working for somebody. Someone who can say, Can you make it more green? Could that sky pop?

GP Could they smile more?

JW In television it’s even funnier because we would get directions like, “Give it an air of substance!”

GP “Make it more authentic.”

JW “It needs a little more ooooomph.” (laughter) I literally made a collection of these directions that you would get. I did interesting work, as did Gary, but it’s when you’re given an opportunity to do something else, when you’re allowed to be yourself—you treasure those times.

GP You do. I would say my friend Matt Groening has entered into media and made a gigantically powerful platform for leftist politics on a conservative station. So it is kind of the most subversive thing he could possibly do, and on a worldwide scale. If I go to Paris and turn on the TV, there’s “The Simpsons”. If I change the channel, it’s “Futurama”. So he has done this incredible job of infiltrating media.

FTG So is that the pinnacle of Rozz Tox infiltration?

GP If we can keep putting more ideas and reading lists into the pablum, and redeem the pablum …

JW And other people have come along and done some amazingly radical work. The old Warner Bros cartoons, the classics, Bugs Bunny, Road Runner cartoons are just classic in the level of parody that they do. Though not especially political. And other groups have come along that have not seized the opportunity but still remain popular like The Muppets. I can’t think of The Muppets as being political, except for “It’s Not Easy Being Green”.

FTG I saw a piece on Fox News decrying the Muppets movie because there was an oil executive they felt was portrayed in an unsavory way; it was a source of great outrage. Gary, you’ve spoken about painting your fears. What are you afraid of these days?

GP We’re on the wrong planet. We’re on the death planet. (laughter) We’re on the planet of making a baby in a world where we die. That’s what I’m afraid of. I mean, I don’t go around fearful. If I drive a car I try to keep it on the road. If I’m pushing a baby carriage I try to keep it out from under the cars. But no, I don’t think I’m particularly fearful. But in my art I really like—and I don’t know how this evolved—but I like putting the whole gamut of the hieroglyph of people words or people artifacts which is very cute, very horrifying, very boring—the full range of words we might need to express ourselves. So you’ll see little happy ducks standing next to sexy women standing next to an axe in a post or something. But that’s the stuff we find on earth. It’s kind of like landscape painting, what I do. They’re very wide paintings, which alludes to a landscape.

FTG How do you feel about the little characters from your paintings being gigantic sculptures at MOCAD? Is that how they should be? How does that change them?

GP It was really appropriate in this show, with Josh’s help and guidance, to make these models.

JW They’re constantly changing. They’re the best of both of us. I’m very proud of that.

FTG I can imagine that being really terrifying, your drawings eleven feet tall. Even the most friendly ones, even the inflatable caterpillar, the smiling watermelons …

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JW Terrifying, no. They’re not terrifying in this show, they’re very funny.

GP Some guy climbed into one of them and went to sleep during the opening. (laughter) For a long time he was back there during the opening, hiding in the sculpture. It really isn’t terrifying. I’d say a bad acid trip is terrifying. But I’d say this is somewhat psychedelic; it leads to that imagery, it is a little journey you take in the dark, there are unusual things you’re seeing with the lighting effects, but they’re kind of beautiful. They’re kind of strange and beautiful.

FTG Is the way they have it set up in MOCAD the ideal way to see your work, Gary?

JW So far!

FTG I mean, the white-walled gallery is the de facto place for anything; Francis Bacon to some classical Greek vase is going to be on this white wall. If you could be as pie-in-the-sky as you can imagine, where would that ideal place to look at your work be?

JW For me they’ve been happening: the Hayden Planetarium is about as good as it gets; it’s a giant dome in a room so dark you don’t know where you are.

FTG So really it’s the sky, then. You’ve got to colonize the sky!

JW The Northern Lights kind of beat me out. I’m never gonna be able to beat the Northern Lights. But, maybe, better than fireworks. Especially now that fireworks have become so programmed, so predictable.

GP I like white rooms, I like galleries.

JW But the one at MOCAD was 20,000 square feet of white room. Terrifying. We needed to [make it into a dark room] because we didn’t have that much money, and darkness is your friend. So we turned off all the lights and now you only see what’s lit. It’s not a dark ride, but as opposed to fighting the whiteness, we created darkness. It was much easier to build from a platform of darkness. We were able to explore, because there was a reasonable budget, ultraviolet light, and not in the tacky way. Gary came in and overpainted the sculptures; he’d already put something on that was reactive to color; he’d papered it in a design that looked one way under red light and one way under green light and one way under blue light, and then he overpainted with invisible paint which you can’t see unless the lights go off and the ultraviolet lights are on. And we could have kept going. We could have had smoke and other things, but we wanted to be reasonable. So even if it’s in darkness, it’s not terribly dark at all.

FTG Do you think there should be art made distinctly for children?

GP I think children should be allowed to make art.

JW Children should make art for adults, I think.

GP Making something out of a scribble: that was the most valuable game my father played with me when I was a child.

JW I have a thing that I do, it’s my party trick for kids: “I’m Captain Glue Gun.” And here’s how it works: I bring a large box full of popsicle sticks, feathers—just anything. And I bring a good surface to work on—a piece of foam board, something good. And I plop it down in front of the kid and I say, Here you go. You do anything you want to do, show me and I’ll glue it down. I hold the glue gun, you don’t hold the glue gun. And of course with a glue gun it’s so instant that you can be three dimensional. Because before that art is always, “Draw a picture of a basketball player.” So they do, and it’s wonderful and primitive. And then the teacher says, “Now put the background around it.” Oooooggghhh. It’s a near-death experience.

When I stopped doing light shows I really didn’t want to drive around with seven tons of equipment (which is what it was) and eight sour hippies on cocaine. I really wanted to walk away from that. One of the things about television was you didn’t have to buy equipment. A big truck showed up and everything was on it, and so I was kind of attracted to it.

FTG There’s this part at the very end of Easy Rider when Peter Fonda’s character says “We blew it.” I was just thinking of him and their saga when you said “sour hippies.”

JW People forget that hippies weren’t necessarily peace and love and flowers. They never were.

FTG What were they?

JW They were narcissistic, jingoistic. It went all the way from a panhandler to Charles Manson. They were all hippies. And I don’t know anybody that truly lived the hippie life without leaving a lot of damage behind them, because it was selfish.

FTG Do you feel the same way?

GP I think that the hippie dream soured pretty quickly. I’m interested in that dream. There’s an interesting book called Inner Space that’s about hippie architecture. It’s kind of like before the hippies decided to go back to the land they had these crazy ideas about building space ships and flying away. I was more interested in that. But then it was, Oh we don’t have spaceships so let’s grow our own vegetables, which was a lot more boring to me. I mean, I like drawing a vegetable, it’s fine, but I liked the spaceships.

JW I met a very nice young woman at a party at Gary’s house whose claim to fame was that she was the three-year-old nude child in the LIFE magazine that came out after Woodstock; she became the poster child for that world.

GP I asked her about the commune; she said the adults would be dancing naked in the rain and the kids would be pouring honey all over the kitchen floor.

FTG That is a beautiful image!

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GP I’m not opposed to visionary ideas, but, in actuality, they’ve got to take out the trash.

FTG Are you still stuck with the Rozz Tox thought that capitalism is the river that we swim in? Do you have any faith in things like Occupy Wall Street?

JW Yeah, Gary sits in his 1904 beautiful house in Ditmas Park and worries about that … I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to be sarcastic.

GP The technological information revolution is changing things in ways we can’t predict exactly—how it’s going to affect value and so on. But for the time being, you still have to pay the rent or the mortgage. The issues haven’t gone away, they haven’t changed much. Except that things pay less; many things that you want to be paid for are free, so there’s kind of a dilemma now about still needing to produce cash, but the things that you used to get paid for you don’t get paid for anymore. So that’s got to cause something to change.

FTG And that’s become particularly acute in the U.S. because we’ve nearly stopped producing things that are drivable, dial-able, wearable.

GP The genius of the U.S. is inventing things like the pet rock. Where someone puts a rock in a box and charges six bucks for it and calls it a pet rock. That’s the American way.

Our generation had to extrapolate from tiny fragments. Now, information comes to you massively. But we had to chase tiny, literally tiny pictures and go, What does that mean? Now you just type in psychedelic Japanese art and it comes up. So you can find allies when you’re younger; probably fifth graders are finding allies around the country now, whereas we had to have fan-zines, or go to college. The landscape’s changing, but I don’t know how it affects capitalism ultimately.

One change is that hardly anyone here is wearing a suit and tie.

JW This restaurant, 20 years ago, would have been full of people wearing suits and ties.

GP Am I going to wear a blue tie or a black tie? That was what you had—you could go nuts and wear a red tie. That’s one thing that’s changed.

There’s always going to be another scheme. At the turn of the century they were projecting advertisements on clouds over Manhattan. They finally outlawed that. They outlawed putting soap ads on the pyramids.

FTG When was that outlawed?

GP In the 1890s. Advertising was on the pyramids—all the wonders of the world had ads painted on them.

JW My next meeting, when I leave you guys, I’m going to walk uptown and have a meeting with a company that produces events and industrial shows, who would like a Joshua Light Show type thing for a party—the tenth anniversary of some insurance company.

GP But that’s a commissioned, commercial piece.

JW And I approach it commercially. I’m happy to sell the Joshua Light Show name for your marquee; I have to make some money to pay for the art that we’re going to do.

FTG What about government subsidies for the arts?

JW I’d like to see more government subsidies, like everything else; but I know who those peer groups are, I know how they develop those panels, I know how that money goes out, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. We could use a little more government subsidy right now; it’s not so much for the individuals as much as the producing organizations. That’s the sad part. The producing organizations, like P.S. 122 and The Kitchen take their money globally but they operate locally. What can I say; we are a little bit hypocritical, as they were in the day of the Medicis.

GP Artists just have to be really hard-headed and persevere regardless of the climate. The climate’s going to change and you’re still going to want to make art.

JW Which is, in the end, all we can do—make art. It gave me a certain amount of comfort when George Bush and company decided we needed to invade Iraq everybody was very upset; I went to a very nice evening at the New York Theater Workshop, which is just a bunch of artists, where everybody was getting up and venting, and somebody got up at the end and said, Look, the best you can do right now is make art. And I took that seriously. It doesn’t mean I’m hiding behind art does change minds, does influence people. And Matt Groening is a very good example; his stuff is very wonderfully left-wing, but it gets through to the audience that they want to sell to, so they let it go.

Joshua White and Gary Panter’s Light Show is at MOCAD through April 29th. Visit Gary Panter’s website here and Joshua White’s website here.

Frank Thurston Green is an exuberant young man.

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