Punk rock has for decades been a prime mode of expression for dealing with one’s inner frustrations, both from a visual and musical standpoint. It is loud, high-energy music that tends to be tinged with political messages and rebellious lyrics, often where they apply to such subjects as antifascism or violating people’s rights.
For an art exhibition focused on the punk-rock world to find its way into an institution of higher learning, curators skilled in the nuances of the genre would seem mandatory. Such is the case with Ryann Casey and Justin Gray – friends, colleagues and longtime punk-rock fans who have put together “Shortest, Fastest, Loudest: The Art of South Jersey & Philadelphia Punk” a display which will run at Stockton University’s Art Gallery through April 6.
The free-to-attend display features illustrations, sculptures, photography, street art and poster art all focused on punk rock that primarily originated in the South Jersey and Philadelphia regions. Casey is a Stockton adjunct professor and the exhibition coordinator for the gallery, and has also curated art shows for other venues for about the past dozen years. Gray is Stockton’s visual arts studio supervisor.
“Often my exhibitions have focused on trauma and loss, so after doing many shows like that I wanted to do something that was a little fun and kind of connected with things I grew up with,” says Casey.
“I wanted to do an exhibition that focused on ‘Where do old punks go?’ basically, and was kicking around some thoughts on how, as artists, we might get the idea to work. I asked a friend for the past 20-plus years, who also works at Stockton (Gray), and we co-curated the show together.
“We’re both artists who grew up in punk, and it seemed like a fun way to celebrate this music we love both here and in Philadelphia – finding people who have been influenced by punk and seeing how they incorporate it into their artwork in interesting ways.”
Casey and Gray pooled their resources and brought in more than 20 artists to participate in the exhibition. Among them is a renowned Philly street artist called Low Level whose artwork is often depicted on vintage suitcases he seeks out and uses in place of an art canvas.
“Low Level does plywood installations on poles throughout Philly, and has for a number of years,” says Casey. “The pieces he’ll have here, the suitcases, were part of a larger installation at the Philadelphia airport. Punk rock in general uses a lot of street art, especially graffiti work, so we’re highlighting how punk artwork exists in the world, from flyers, posters and pins to spray painted plywood.”
While Low Level is among the best known of the nearly two dozen artists participating in the exhibition, Casey says that there are no featured artists or those intended to stand out as show stars.
“Everyone holds equal space, which is kind of how punk works,” she says. “We didn’t put out an open call; Justin and I both searched for artists who we wanted to include, and who we felt connected. There are a lot of artists who I’ve worked with in other contemporary exhibitions, like Caitlyn McCormack and Lucas Kelly, and there are some whose work we were familiar with but are including for the first time, so it’s a nice mix.
“Low Level’s display is right across from the flyer wall, which has generated the biggest interest from spectators so far, based partly on its sheer size,” adds Casey. “We spent weeks making it. It is layers upon layers of flyers on plywood, and probably the most massive installation we’ve had in the gallery.”
The flyer wall features posters collected over the years from gigs that punk-rock bands performed primarily in the South Jersey and Philly areas, but also around Trenton and as far north as New Brunswick.
“A lot of these bands may be based in South Jersey or Philly but travel across the state to play, so some of the posters are from outside our immediate area,” she says. “Justin’s main area of expertise is as an illustrator – he still designs posters and promos for bands – so because that’s his background, the flyer wall was largely his doing.
“It’s almost like a time capsule,” she says. “The earliest ones date to maybe the late 1970s. We’ve had a lot of people see flyers and respond ‘Oh, I was at that show!’ and so we’re seeing something happen where people feel like it’s part of their history, that they’re in a space where they belong. That’s an important part for me as the gallery curator too. So many people relate to it, including many of the Stockton staff members.”
An audio component The punk-rock exhibition also features a listening station as part of its layout. Here show attendees can play vinyl punk records in a designated space.
“Justin made the record station, I brought in my record player, and we both brought in a bunch of records that we had so that people can sit on cushions and listen to them,” Casey says. “We wanted this to be usable space. A lot of times with galleries, you tend to feel like you’re walking into someone else’s house. We want people to feel like they can stop in the gallery, sit down, listen to a record, and then go about their day.
“We really wanted to make that a part of the experience, as collecting records has always been such a critical part of being part of the punk scene.”
Casey says that the punk-rock scene is still alive and thriving, and not only in the Philly and South Jersey areas but beyond.
“What’s special about punk is that it finds new audiences in each generation, and with the new bands coming out,” she says. “Or there’s young people discovering the old bands. I remember getting my first (Iggy and the) Stooges record and thinking ‘This is great!’ There are kids 16, 18 years old doing the same thing – finding the bands and entering in the scene.
“We all look for things that make us feel involved and engaged, and I think in general a lot of us have turned to punk for that,” she adds. “Sometimes we’ve turned to punk for political reasons too. I think it’s a combination. I can’t even say that there’s a resurgence going on because it’s always been there. I can’t remember living in Philly or Jersey where there weren’t these shows happening.