Search & Destroy: Punk Rock Through the Eyes of Bruce Conner

Friday night was an important night for fans of punk rock and its history. Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art played host to the opening of Bruce Conner and the Primal Scene of Punk Rock, a photographic descent into the raw, gritty history of punk and its subsequent influence on art and music. Attendees got to see a variety of photos, fliers, and video footage that truly showcased the rebelliousness of the punk rock culture. One that taught music and art history from a different perspective.

From the very first moment you stepped through the door to the museum, everyone from hipsters to punks to regular joes off the street, fans of punk and those who knew nothing about it were able to hang out, drink a few brews, and get a taste of what life was like for the dirty, outcast misfits of the 70’s and 80’s. Heavily influenced by the disdain for suburban life and conformity, the punk culture took visual and performance art to a whole new level.

Live shows, as well as the scene as a whole, were typically aggressive and sometimes violent in nature. The mindset of punk rockers during this time (and really, throughout time) was wholeheartedly against society standards, which clearly came through in the photographs and art that were created. Bruce Conner, possibly one of the most equivocal San Francisco Beats from the 1950’s, spent much of his career photographing bands like Devo, The Cramps and the Dead Kennedys during their live gigs to convey the dark aesthetic that essentially was punk rock.

As I walked around the museum looking at the photos, watching the footage, and reading excerpts printed on the walls, I took in the vibe of other patrons. It was an interesting experience to see their reactions to some of the pieces. Some reacted with familiarity and nostalgia as if perhaps they had once been apart of punk rock’s glory days. Others looked confused. I remember seeing one older guy who was watching live footage of a show who couldn’t stop smiling. I kind of hoped he would bust out his air guitar since it looked like that could have happened at any moment. Sadly, he did not. The mix of people was kind of surprising but I guess that’s to be expected when it comes to art.

The best part of the exhibit for me was the room where they were playing video footage. I think this was where I spent the majority of my time. Fliers were tacked up on one wall haphazardly and centered around medium sized TV screens, all of which allowed patrons to view a different show or performance. Music was playing over the loudspeakers above which hung from what I could only guess was a model sculpture of a vulture… or some other type of vindictive looking foul. On another wall were framed pictures, which included a cluster of song lyrics, fliers, and cassette tapes of various punk bands. Right dead in the middle of the room was a transparent screen where The Cramps footage was projected. I still wish that dude would have shown us all his mad air guitar skills…

In addition to Conner’s work, there were also textual pieces by Miranda July, a filmmaker, writer and performance artist with deep roots in the punk rock and Riot Grrl scenes of Olympia, Washington. There were photos by Juan Capistran, a Latino immigrant who utilized aspects of the punk culture to explore and expose the impact of U.S. Immigration laws on Latinos in the Los Angeles area, and an installation entitled Guarded that displayed weapons and seemingly harmless items that are prohibited by the TSA during air travel, by Adam Ames and Andrew Bordwin, better known as Type A. I’m not sure if the installation corresponded with the Bruce Conner exhibit, however, the more I think about it… in a strange way, I can see a link between the two.

Yeah, I’ve been around “punks” all my life, but was never really exposed to the scene’s roots or its correlation with art. However, after diving in a little deeper when I left the museum and conversing with my fellow art and music lovers, I can clearly see just how influential the punk rock culture was on artistic expression in all its forms. From the flier art and magazine covers, specifically those of Search & Destroy, the zine that Bruce Conner shot for, to the photos of musicians and their audiences during shows, punk rock undoubtedly left its mark.

If you weren’t able to catch Bruce Conner and the Primal Scene of Punk Rock on its opening night, don’t worry. The exhibit will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art until June 24th and you will also have the chance to check out some cool lectures and performances along the way. For more information on the Bruce Conner exhibit as well as dates and times of lectures and shows, check out www.mcadenver.org.

Oh! One more thing… if you have seen the exhibit, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Did you think the photos and pieces displayed truly represented the punk rock scene? Would you have done something different? Get the discussion started in the comments section NOW!

Photo Cred: Phil Morris & Rachael Moyte

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The name's Rachael. I rock out. I skateboard. I write. I piss glitter.