Here sits a bespectacled, seemingly despondent young man, looking at something off to his right, bathed in yellow, artificial light. To one side of the stool on which he rests is an antiquated sewing machine branded with “Panty Raid in extreme, metal-logo lettering; on the other is a heap of colorful fabrics.
There a tattooed, wide-eyed malcontent chews on his fist as he reclines on a faux-zebra bedspread, flanked by a wall spray-painted in a cryptic, frustrated scrawl of reds, whites, blues, and blacks and a bookshelf packed tight with titles like The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers and The Terrorist Recognition Handbook.
Who were these people? Photographer Abby Banks, who shot the 200-and-then-some photographs contained in Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy over the course of a fall 2004 cross-country trip, doesn’t endeavor to answer that question outright. Forewords from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and musician Timothy Findlen offer context to the core subject of this coffee table tome, but it’s ultimately left up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the inhabitants of imaginatively, and often shambolically, decorated homes in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Utah, California, and places in between.
These are free spirits whose concept of decor has nothing to do with Trading Spaces and everything to do with the purest possible forms of personal expression. There are fewer portraits here than long, searching glances into bedrooms, dens, common rooms, bathrooms, backyards, and facades considered from a near remove that captivate one’s attentions and assail the eye.
So, look at the motley, vivid patchwork of rumpled show fliers used to wallpaper an Olympia, Washington residence; gape at the recycling area of a Minneapolis abode where bolts of cotton have been transformed into an imposing, oversized spider’s web and grotesque, monstrous faces leer at you from a vibrantly painted, floor-to-ceiling mural. Somewhere in Milwaukee, an unfinished, white paint-peeling brick wall shouts “THE PRICE OF EXISTENCE IS ETERNAL WARFARE.” The corpses of countless bicycles have been jury-rigged into a breathtaking, starkly hued outdoor art structure in Salt Lake City.
Indeed, much of Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy’s charm lies in the pervasive sense of hearth-as-perpetually-evolving-canvas. Someone has written “Black Flag” above an air vent remarkably similar to the seminal hardcore band’s logo; a decrepit chandelier hangs in the loose grip of a Blue and yellow feather boa and drips with gaudy, plastic clear jewels. Foyers are plastered with nakedly personal notes and letters; a filthy green tee thumb tacked to a wall bears the stenciled legend “My other shirt is clean.”
Recurring motifs dot Banks’ work. Skateboard and skateboard trucks abound, as do microphones, guitars, well-worn texts, haphazard stacks of vinyl, all-but-destroyed furniture, and clusters of the sort of junky hipster kitsch Dan Clowes once decried in Eightball. Frequently, we encounter signage intended to maintain order (“Biting Dogs Live Here”) or re-frame solemnity as irony (“Be Rapture Ready”). More often than not, these vistas of chaos and disorder elicit thoroughly unanswerable questions, even as the crusty, slightly claustrophobic romanticism of communal outsider living beguiles.
Three years hence, are the then-residents of these spaces still making nests in them, or have straight-laced living and gentrification intervened? Do the walls still glower with shocking pinks, aggressive crimsons, and seasick greens? Are the bathrooms and kitchens still lousy with tossed off drawings and clippings from children’s magazines and stickers of all stripes? Are all these hoarded existentialist volumes on display for show, or kept at hand for genuine intellectual/ philosophical enrichment?
On a makeshift table in Portland, Oregon, rest coyote skulls, tubes of play blood, spools of black thread, boxes of razor blades, and what look to be eagle claws, among other incidental detritus. Why? To what purpose or end, of art, of shock, of amusement? It’s likely we’ll never know, and perhaps we wouldn’t want to know.
Early on in Punk House, on top of someone’s abandoned miniature piano, we spy a copy of a book by Aaron Cometbus; the title is obscured. Cometbus, a Bay Area punk musician and longtime zinester, has eloquently and extensively chronicled the downs and ecstasies of the idealistic and outcast youth lifestyles Banks captures so intimately here. Seek his writings out for an empirical literary compliment, or just take Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy at in-your-face-value as a caption-less, one-cracked-window-at-a-time vicarious thrill.