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Art & artists

Horace Panter: From art to pop to Pop art

— January 2015

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Horace Panter, Kurt Cobain

The Specials’ bass player has produced a book ‘strong on visual appeal, but wanting on detail’- Julian Freeman looks forward to volume 2

Art by Horace Panter

Afficionados of ‘Two Tone’, the beating heart of British music during the late 1970s and the early ’80s, will know Horace Panter’s name. He was the bass player of The Specials, regular contributors to the music charts with hits such as Do Nothing and Ghost Town, but like so many popular musicians before and since, Panter’s creative background lay in art and design: here, it must be assumed, it remains.

In Art, Panter offers his own retrospective, a visual record of his musical development. It is his first book and, as he says, he hopes it is merely Volume One of his greatest hits. It is certainly an interesting and arresting document, as much for what it contains as for the comparisons and contrasts to be drawn between Panter’s work and that by others who have sought to work in similar directions. His publishers rightly identify the book’s market in the broadest terms, and it will certainly interest anyone who has a catholic musical taste, and an interest in art in which Pop is an abiding feature. Students will find it stimulating, but perhaps not at this price.

It must be stated immediately that Art’s greatest irritant is its failure to state the sizes of Panter’s pictures, or to specifically identify any of their media. Size and medium are hinted at, or the information is given offhand.

Though this may seem a peevish opening comment, the attractiveness of many of these images invites serious interest in their size, and when Panter states that, as he evolved as an artist his interests moved from (large) Pop painting to (as he puts it) an epiphany upon discovering Joseph Cornell, confusion sets in. Has he painted in a giant order, as his predecessor David Oxtoby did for so many of his famous Rockers of the 1970s, or are most of his works comparatively small, cabinet paintings and prints? A little of both is the way it seems, though the appearance of prints (Panter likes giclée, but what about screenprints or lithography?) muddies the water somewhat. No pun is intended, and indeed Muddy is reproduced here, together with a range of Panter’s heroes: they arrive in no particular order, starting with a trio of images of The Clash (Panter  claims an ‘inextricable’ connection with the band), and working through a cornucopia of the best of blues and jazz influences in a highly entertaining way.

The simpler Panter’s images are, the better they work in the book’s 22.5-centimetre-square format, simply because the complexity of many of them makes their detail almost unreadable. Thus, the very droll Elvis with badges (undated) is an ironic, naive homage to Peter Blake’s famous (1961) self-portrait. It works as a reproduction because of its subject, alone in simplified surroundings. Against this, prints and paintings such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kurt Cobain and (particularly) John Lee Hooker (all undated) bear much intricate written record, and demonstrate a clear regard for the importance of the picture surfaces themselves, which even the provision of illustrative details can often do little to clarify.

Art is much more than a labour of love, and the fact of its publication indicates that Panter believes in his work, and that it might appeal to a wider, understanding audience than those currently ‘in the know’. The drawbacks listed are impediments, not least because what is here is of genuine interest, achieved on the picture surface with wit and a real sense of personal pleasure. Though the majority of the illustrated works seem to stem from the period of The Specials’ career, there are significant images that clearly come from more recent years, including a compelling portrait of Amy Winehouse – without her tattoos.

That issue of size dogs Panter’s Cassette Tapes, which Foruli claim as ‘famous’ (sorry Horace – I missed them), and once more the possibility for truly entertaining discussion that goes begging once more. Panter states that these are his biggest canvases, and that in their execution he became surprised by his increasingly painterly handling of the media. It is a matter for regret that Panter’s own response to Pop – ‘elevating the mundane’ – is to leave so many of the reasons for his decisions unspoken. Perhaps if Volume Two arrives we shall hear more of them, but for the present this hybrid will have to do the business: strong on visual appeal, but wanting on detail.

Art by Horace Panter  is published by Foruli Codex, 2014.  115pp., fully illustrated in colour.  £25.00 (hbk) ISBN 978 1 905792 52 8


Julian Freeman
Sussex Coast College, Hastings
Art historian

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