Punk Rock Art Exhibit at MoCA Westport

The opening reception for “Punk is Coming” at MoCA Westport was the culture shock one could hope for. Well-heeled martini-sippers in fancy suits and bow ties bent to examine photographs of young men who scarred their chests with broken beer bottles on New York club stages nearly a half ago -century.

Those who dressed in accepted punk styles for the opening were ogled and photographed by other attendees, just as they might have been in days past celebrated on gallery walls.

The writer, who embraced the movement as a high school student in mid-1970s Massachusetts and still lives by its guiding principles, donned his recent special-edition vintage Sex Pistols Doc Martens boots, emblazoned with the words “Boredom” and “Nowhere”, for the occasion. The boots are inspired by the work of Jamie Reid, who designed most of the Sex Pistols’ record covers.

Reid’s artwork, including his groundbreaking “God Save the Queen” disfigurement of a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, is framed and hung on the walls of the gallery. The same goes for a photo from The Heartbreakers (that of Johnny Thunders ― Tom Petty doesn’t belong here) where the bands’ hearts look like they’ve been ripped out of their chests.

In itself, the exhibition is extraordinary. Iconic Roberta Bayley photographs, widely known for use on album covers or posters, have been enlarged to near life-size and encased in clear Plexiglas frames suspended from chains. Photos of the most famous punk artists, from the Ramones to Johnny Rotten, stand alongside works by punk artists: paintings by New York Dolls frontman David Johansen (known as Buster Poindexter in his post-punk years) and Psychedelic Furs frontman Richard Butler (whose band played Ridgefield earlier this month). There’s a cartoony portrait of Joey Ramone drawn by his teammate Dee Dee Ramone. A frequently recurring figure in the exhibit is shrunken Dead Boys singer Stiv Bators, an unlikely but compelling muse to several artists.

Modern works of art used to being exhibited in major museums and galleries, such as Amy Arbus, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Duncan Hannah, fit perfectly into punk art.

The show focuses on the early years of punk, from pioneering bands like The New York Dolls and The Patti Smith Group, who existed before the movement had a name, to some of punk’s most famous proponents, including The Ramones, The Clash and The Sex Pistols. .

The live punk rage may have naturally been sparked by the art gallery surroundings, but there’s plenty of visual excitement to be had here. The sound is extremely low. There are two distinct video elements to “Punk is Coming”: a gigantic screen in the largest exhibit hall and a small side area where dozens of hours of punk videos are projected. Mannes says they have more than 700 hours of rarely seen concert footage from 1970s punk columnists Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong at their disposal, and screenings change daily.

The exhibition also features special live events scheduled for April and May. Pioneering punk video jockey Merrill Aldighieri screens some of her work April 7 at 6 p.m. Longtime East Coast punk/pop band The Figgs perform April 16 at 7 p.m. best books about the band, “On the Road with The Ramones,” speaks at 6 p.m. April 21. Punk legend Richard Hell is scheduled there on April 28 at 6 p.m., and Ivers and Armstrong appear in person on May 5 at 6 p.m.

MoCA Westport executive director Ruth Mannes calls “Punk is Coming” an “incredible explosion of work, some of which has never been seen before.” People come from all over – New York, London, Paris,” she said.

Mannes points out that a deliberate attempt was made to include female artists, particularly among photographers and filmmakers.

“We wanted to showcase women not just on stage but behind the scenes,” Mannes explains. “Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong do this kind of work for a living, doing punk shows everywhere. They were blown away by this one.

The idea for a punk art exhibition came from local artist and patron Marian Schindeman, aka Mannes. “She is a huge supporter of ours and a close friend of Patti Smith.”

Schwindeman co-curated the exhibition with Mannes, Bayley, and MoCA Westport Exhibitions Director Liz Leggett.

Mannes says MoCA Westport would like to send the “Punk is Coming” exhibit on tour, but it would take a colossal organizational effort. So the exhibition can be as fleeting, frenetic and in your face as a punk club show – living fast, dying young and leaving indelible memories.

‘Punk is Coming’ is on view until June 5 at MoCA Westport, 19 Newtown Turnpike, Westport. Gallery hours are Wednesday 12-4 p.m., Thursday 12-7 p.m., Friday 12-4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 12-4 p.m. Free entry. mocawestport.org.

Christopher Arnott can be reached at carnott@courant.com.

Diana J. Carleton