Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Joe Angio’s winning rock documentary Revenge of the Mekons concerns a defiantly non-commercial punk-era British rock band that has kept going with core members who started out as art students at the University of Leeds, along with a rotating cast, for thirty years. The filmmakers lock into the louche verve of the Mekons – especially frontman Jon Langford and singer Sally Timms, who says, in her inimitably offhand way: “Success is the thing that usually kills bands in the end; we’ve had none of it.” Remaining a cult favorite and still loving the unremunerative thing that they do into their late fifties constitute their revenge.
[Image: One of Joe Langford’s paintings grabbed off the Walker Art Center blog.]
Contemplating the Mekons’ fledgling music – and punk rock generally – Langford says something along these lines that could apply to upstart visual artists: We couldn’t play, but we had ideas. Over time, of course, they got so they could play, just as young painters struggling with color and line and composition eventually get so they can paint. The Mekons may be to the music world what casualist or provisional painters are to the art world: mildly disruptive and restless souls who see value in celebrating irresoluteness in the very execution of their work. In one pricelessly telling scene in the film, Timms forgets the words of a song in mid-verse, snickers sardonically, and picks it up after Langford hands her a lyric book. The episode only burnishes the legend.
Of course, a number of critics and artists have observed that the casualist tendency is self-limiting, since art can only become so haphazard before it loses aesthetic merit or cachet. Accordingly, casualism seems inherently transitional: eventually it has to give way to greater refinement, either through retrogression or innovation. But the Mekons’ staying power suggests that stalwarts of casualism could at least delay its obsolescence by extending it to new content and media. The Mekons themselves have been enterprisingly expansive in applying their methodical madness – in particular, by importing American country-and-western elements into their music in a way that gives it a knowing, kitschy feel.
It will be interesting to see whether younger painters extend the casualist vein, and if so how they manage to keep it fresh. Revenge of the Mekons might provide a little oblique inspiration.
Note: Mekons violinist Susie Honeyman, who joined the band in 1983, runs the Grey Gallery with her artist husband Jock McFadyen. They live in East London.
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