I tried not to gush too much when my pal Vicki Berndt introduced me to Horace Panter at their recent group art show. It turns out the bass player for The Specials, the much-loved and super influential 2-Tone ska band, is also a fine artist who masterfully paints immaculate and eye-popping tributes to vintage California signage, architecture, and landscapes. I instantly loved his vision of the Lone Pine Hotel that I have driven by dozens of times on the way to Mammoth Lakes and connected with the tribute to Philippe The Original, where I get coffee and donuts multiple times a week in Chinatown. Who knew a guy associated with black-and-white checkered album covers had such a love for colorful Americana from the mid-century and even before?
This summer was a perfect time to meet Horace and his partner Clare, because The Specials happen to be on the road in the U.S. right now and the two will be attending a group art show at the tour’s end. For Cassettes Versus Vinyl, Horace is contributing paintings of punk and post punk tapes (both demos from recording studios and homemade mixes) and showing alongside two other British contemporary artists, Chris Barton and Morgan Howell. On eve of the SoCal events, how could I not ask Gentleman Horace some questions about art and music?
You were going to art school when The Specials formed. Have you been interested in art since you were a kid, and what sort of art were you interested in at the time?
The only thing I was ever good at when I was at school was technical drawing, but it never interested me as a career. I was more interested in pop music and the artwork I saw on album covers (this was the late ’60s) was a big influence. The first paintings that made me sit up were the Pop Artists’ work: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Peter Blake (who did the cover for Sgt. Pepper’s).
When I finally ended up at Art College (1072) the current trends in art were Conceptualism and Minimalism and I was swept up in that. I’ve recently returned to a more traditionalist painting style, albeit tempered with a Pop Art influenced style.
Did you see a relationship between art, design, and music when The Specials and other punk and post punk bands were exploding?
Yes, definitely. The Jamie Reid “cut-up” style of The Sex Pistols graphics, The Clash’s street graffiti ethos, the clothes, and the whole visual attitude. Although it wasn’t cool to mention it at the time, the whole punk movement had its foundation in the UK art colleges. Post punk, too.
How were you able to maintain your interest in art as well as your skills when your musical career suddenly happened?
I didn’t produce a lot of work when The Specials were at their peak. Didn’t have time! But traveling the world with The Specials enabled me to get to visit some great art galleries and museums that I would never have had the chance to see otherwise: The Art Institute of Chicago, MoMa in New York, LACMA in Los Angeles, MoMa in San Francisco, Hamburger Banhof in Berlin, The Ludwig Museum in Cologne.
And how did you arrive at your current colorful, bold, and hyper clean style?
I suppose the current style is a culmination of influences: The bright, flat colors of Pop artists, the work of Peter Blake… The Americana pieces are influenced by Edward Hopper and David Hockney. For us Brits visiting the West Coast, the effect of the light is something we aren’t used to–perhaps something you Yankees take for granted!
I was really surprised by your interest in colorful American signage since you’re British and associated with the black-and-white imagery of 2 Tone Records. Can you explain it?
To me, America is a mythical place. Growing up watching black-and-white television programs, from The Lone Ranger through 77 Sunset Strip, and then discovering that my favorite music either came from or originated from America.
Also, the scale and size of the place: I was brought up in a small semi-agricultural town in England. New York seemed like a hyper-real version of the future. You seem to have a different kind of visual aesthetic; you’d never get huge gaudy motel signs in England. (Not that we have motels, you understand!)
It’s stuff that you Americans see every day. I’m just seeing it differently.
Cassettes are a cheap, mass-produced artifact of early music technology: the perfect pop product, just like Andy Warhol’s soup cans. They have nostalgic value. We recorded the soundtrack to our childhood and adolescence on them, and then threw them away.
And as a musician, they were tools of the trade. After a day’s recording, you’d take home a rough copy of the work you’d done to listen to it with fresh ears. Most recording studios had their own cassettes. These recordings were the skeletons of some classic songs, then you recorded over them!
Your teaming up with Chris Barton’s sculptures of cassettes and Morgan Howell’s paintings of 7″ singles for an art show is perfect. How did you three meet?
I’d seen Morgan’s work at the BBC in London and when I started doing cassette paintings it wasn’t too long before social media introduced us. Chris is the new boy in town. He approached me to ask if it was okay for him to do more-or-less the same subject matter but in 3D. I was blown away; what amazing work and what a nice guy. The work we do complements each other brilliantly. There was a real emotional response to our first joint exhibition in Manchester (UK) earlier this year.
The other week, we had talked a little bit about Brexit and Trump, and The Specials came out of Thatcher’s England… I got to wondering if it’s better to live in a golden era of politics with lame art or a terrible regime with amazing art?
I suppose all the social upheavals produced great art: the first and second World Wars, for example, and punk rock came out of the repercussions of the 1973 oil crisis. But, then again, injustice is timeless and there’s always going to be something to rail against. I think a “golden age” is something you view with hindsight.
If I had lived in Russia or Germany in the mid-1930s, or China in the ’60s, I would not be so flippant with my reply. Even if you have a crap democracy, it’s still a democracy. Haven’t been a great help here, really!
Don’t miss The Specials on tour in the U.S. right now, find out more about Horace’s work at horacepanterart.com, and I’ll see you at the Cassettes Versus Vinyl group show from Thursday, October 6 through Sunday, October 9 at Project Space.
2028 East 7th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90021