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Destroy All Monsters Honored with LA Art Show

This week, an Ann Arbor art collective from the 1970s will be recognized in a retrospective show at a Los Angeles gallery. WDET’s Rob St. Mary takes a look at Destroy All Monsters.

(click the audio link above to hear the story)

Let’s go back to the summer of 1979. The latest issue of Punk Magazine is out. Between articles on the Clash and Alice Cooper is a centerfold of the glamorous woman lounging in a mini-skirt. That’s Niagara, the lead singer of the Ann Arbor band Destroy All Monsters.

“November 22nd (MUSIC)”

The focus of the article is mostly on two members of the group, former Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and ex-MC5 bassist Michael Davis, two bands that influenced punk and, in a way, the very magazine featuring the band. But there is also some talk about a former member of Destroy All Monsters, Cary Loren. The Punk Magazine writer makes a few disparaging remarks about Loren… and clearly doesn’t know or care about what DAM was before it was known as just a band.

"I love you but you’re dead (MUSIC)”

A few years earlier Destroy All Monsters was creating music… but it was more primitive and art based compared to the punk version. And DAM was also focused on multimedia, long before that was a buzzword.

"Destroy All Monsters" underground films

Taking its name for the late 1960s Godzilla film, Destroy All Monsters started in 1973 when four artists, UofM art students Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw and Niagara, and, her then boyfriend, filmmaker/photographer Cary Loren, met in Ann Arbor. Over time, the group would create a large output of images and ideas although most people at the time either didn’t appreciate them or even knew they existed.

Loren says the members found roots in similar interests as they gathered at an Ann Arbor boarding house dubbed “God’s Oasis”.

“We’d meet at God’s Oasis and watch old horror films together and b-movies and had a similar aesthetic, I think.”

Photo by Cary Loren

Niagara says the group was busy. Collages, underground films, photo shoots and music recorded in the basement of “God’s Oasis” became almost a daily affair. And over time Niagara says her friends didn’t know what to think of the group, especially when Destroy All Monsters would occasional play at a party.

“They just thought that I was in some new weird religion. They just could not put their finger on any of it. I mean, it seems normal, then and now. They were just totally bemused and confused and were like “what’s wrong with her and why is this happening?” And, the party would clean out pretty fast.”

Drawing by Niagara

At times the starving artists in DAM found their lack of polish paid off along Ann Arbor’s frat row. The group’s members admit kind of sonically blackmailing unsuspecting frat brothers into paying them with food or cash to stop playing and leave.

While DAM packed a lot of anarchistic and in-your-face style into the collective, the artists often focused on satire of contemporary America. They used celebrity culture, b-movies and horror comics in the effort. DAM member Jim Shaw says the group’s attitude really didn’t have a formal name but, in a few years, people would call their edge and snottyness, punk.

“At the time were just trying to fill in some gaps, I’d say, at some level. Because a lot of the work that you would see by professors was pretty uninspiring… and… not all of it… but, and also the music scene wasn’t anywhere never as interesting in the mid-70s in Ann Arbor as it had been in the late 60s. The Stooges were long gone… and we were trying to fill in some of that aspect, I guess.”

DAM member Mike Kelley says filling in the gaps he felt were missing in the culture or his formal education cultivated a "Do It Yourself" attitude.

“And to be willing to be “out there” and experimental and not get too caught up in notions of quality and at the same time… taking it seriously... like, I never thought of it as a joke enough though there were aspects of it that were meant to be silly or done purely for confrontation reasons or purposefully dumb. There were other aspects of it that were really like a growth experience. Especially, working with other people and realizing you all have to share and fighting and disagreeing it part of that… and in fact, it makes it better.”

This week collected works by Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Niagara and Cary Loren created during their time together in Ann Arbor will go on display for the first time. “Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters 1973-1977” opens at the Prism Gallery in Los Angeles.

Many of the pieces will be seen by the public for the first time since their creation over 35 years ago. Dan Nadel is curator of the exhibit. He says Destroy All Monsters was an innovative collective.

“There weren’t that many that were taking photos and making films and sculpture and painting and massive one-off Xerox runs and drawing and flyers and getting up and making a ton of noise. You just didn’t see that otherwise, not to that level of ambition. They went pretty far. I think they relate more forward than to anything of their time.”

Destroy All Monsters ended around 1977, about a year after Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley left Ann Arbor to continue their art studies in California. Both Kelley and Shaw have become well-known in contemporary art with several of their pieces in internationally known institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Mike Kelley also caught the attention of indie rock fans in 1992 when his artwork was featured on Sonic Youth’s “Dirty” album.

A few years later, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore released a box set of early Destroy All Monsters music.

"Paranoid of Blondes (MUSIC)"

After Kelley and Shaw left Michigan, Niagara and Cary Loren continued to use the name. After adding former Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and MC5 bassist Michael Davis, Loren left Destroy All Monsters but continued to publish an art magazine of the same name.

Meanwhile, the punk rock version of Destroy All Monsters fronted by Niagara continued through the mid-1980s.

"You're Gonna Die (MUSIC)"

Since then, she has continued in music while focusing on painting. In the early 1990s, Niagara started to develop many of her best known images featuring striking and often satirical pop representations of film noir femme fatales.

Over the past few years, Niagara’s art has graced a signature line of sneakers for Vans – an apparel company popular with skateboarders. She also has her own line of women’s fashions.

Cary Loren continues to practice photography and printing. Since the early 1980s, he has owned the Book Beat independent book store in Oak Park.

Curator Dan Nadel says the works in the show throw light on the early days of the members of Destroy All Monsters and, in a way, a certain period in American cultural and art history.

“You get to see kind of what happens when a bunch of artists are left to their own devices in a burned out town in a very funky time in American history with no real institutional support or grants or fancy galleries or anything like that. I think that’s inspiring.”

The Destroy All Monsters retrospective, “The Return of the Repressed”, runs thought January 7th at the Prism Gallery in Los Angeles.

For more information on the show: http://www.prismla.com/

For more information on Mike Kelley: http://www.mikekelley.com/

For more information on Jim Shaw: http://www.simonleegallery.com/Artists/Jim_Shaw/Selected_Works

For more information on Niagara: http://www.niagaradetroit.com/

For more information on Cary Loren: http://www.thebookbeat.com/shop/index.php