The problem with describing Gary Panter is deciding where to begin.
Illustrator, comic-book artist, set designer, pa(i)nter, and raconteur, Panter spoke in Toronto [in 1993] as part of Virtu’s Design in Perpetual Motion lecture series. Panter showed a series of slides in pairs – a snapshot of places he’s visited or lived in (e.g., cowpies, used-car lots, and other kitsch oddities from east Texas, where he grew up; a fire near his present home in Brooklyn; “the only messy spot” in Tokyo) alongside an artwork culled from Panter’s 20 years of doodling, painting, and designing – accompanied by a hilarious deadpan monologue on his sensibility and influences which, like the subjects of his parallel slideshow, are scattered all over the map.
Panter’s fondness for “underground” media like comic books has kept him from becoming a Warhol-like household name, but fans of Pee-wee’s Playhouse can thank Panter for much of the show’s design. The fantastical Saturday-morning “children’s” show attracted a dedicated adult following for its double-entendre humour, its quotation of kids’-show archetypes from the ‘50s (puppets, regular characters, cartoon spots, talking right to the camera), and its amazingly varied and intricate look. Armchairs, globes, rugs, and pterodactyls could speak, the walls practically jittered with colour, a campy genie could grant you a wish, and the whole Playhouse went nuts whenever someone uttered the Secret Word. In an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink world like that, a nerd in a bowtie (Pee-wee, played by Paul Reubens) fit right in – as did Panter, who garnered three Emmys for his set-design work.
“I’ve definitely been into recombinant cultural things for a long time,” he says. He began combining images as far back as 1972, “and the style came out of mixing together everything that I was excited about.” In the ‘80s, after hiphop musicians started to quote old funk tunes from generations before, this pop-culture process would come to be known as sampling, but by suturing bits of Popeye onto Panter’s own cartoon characters and painting Godzilla and King Kong in a Mexican style, Panter was a pioneer in bringing a mix-and-match sensibility to the visual arts.
During his monologue, Panter described how bad acid trips in the ‘60s made him dream of advertising campaigns which he swears he saw on TV years later. Maybe that kind of low-level ESP is behind Panter’s creation of Jimbo, a comic-book character Panter has drawn in various guises for the last two decades who has been living in a world that increasingly resembles reality. “Jimbo’s kind of a nice guy in a near-future world that’s much more out of control than he is. The world he’s in I call Daltokyo, which I think is about more confluent culture and the more hybrid forms that might come out. What if Dallas and Tokyo were mixed together, or the Mayans and the Egyptians?”
What if, indeed. If that sounds familiar, think of how Blade Runner mapped out a jacked-in, Japanized Los Angeles of the future. William Gibson’s early cyberpunk novels depicted a world without geographic, cultural, or informational borders, and Mestizo-Mexican-American author Richard Rodriguez sees tomorrow’s California as a seamless hybrid of the Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, gay, and other influences in the state today. But that’s old hat to Panter fans; he was exploring those themes way back in the ‘70s.
Panter’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse style came back to life in 1990 in a tiny room at the Paramount Hotel in New York. Meant as a playroom for children of the hotel’s guests (hardly ever used, Panter says), Panter designed it with a wink to adult users. “It made me really wonder why I wasn’t doing the whole hotel,” he recalls. “I thought people would like sleeping in a bed made of a thousand Pink Panther dolls sewn together. I made a lot of plans for it, definitely. Pee-wee’s Compund is how it was turning out in the sketchbooks.”
Alas, Pee-wee’s Compund was not to be, though Panter still has dreams – and childhood memories. His advice for up-and-coming artists? “Just don’t forget your childhood obsessions and keep part of your mnd in the sandbox. When I was a kid I always thought I could do this stuff, but when I went to art school I thought I had no ideas.”
Originally published 1993 ¶ Updated here 1999.07.25, 2007.03.19