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Alice Bag's Portraits of the Los Angeles Punk Scene

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Portrait of Tiffany Kennedy by Alice Bag. | Image: Courtesy of Alice Bag.

In early August, Alice Bag made her gallery debut at "Heads Will Roll," an all-female group show inside Chinatown spot Coagula Curatorial. Her contribution included six portraits -- one of herself, five of her friends and former bandmates-- that hung as though they were one piece, a glimpse into the history of a band called Castration Squad.

At the dawn of the 1980s, Bag was, she says, a "temporary member" of the group, but one who filled in on keyboard and bass frequently. Castration Squad itself is a little obscure. There is a post about the band on Bag's website and a few random TV and radio performances floating around the Internet. Many of its members are better known for other projects. Mary Bat-Thing became Dinah Cancer, who spearheaded L.A.'s deathrock scene with 45 Grave. Drummer Elissa Bello was a member of the Go-Gos in that band's early days. As for Alice Bag, she fronted The Bags, one of the handful of groups that formed the city's nascent punk scene in the late 1970s and the source of the stage name that she uses for her myriad music, writing and art projects.

It's impossible to discuss Bag's visual art without discussing her music. She paints portraits of friends, family members and herself. They become snapshots of a life that is deeply embedded in L.A.'s music scene. Decades earlier, Bag cut her teeth playing at the long-gone Hong Kong Cafe, across Hill Street from the gallery where her art appears. There's even a photo of her playing with The Bags inside the boutique that took over the old venue's space. In the years that followed, she played with performers like Vaginal Davis and El Vez. More recently, she performed with former Bratmobile vocalist Allison Wolfe as part of the group Sex Stains at Echo Park Rising. Save for the handful of years she spent living in Arizona, Bag has always been in a band.

Portrait of Mary Bat-Thing (a.k.a. Dinah Cancer) by Alice Bag. | Image courtesy of Alice Bag
Portrait of Mary Bat-Thing (a.k.a. Dinah Cancer) by Alice Bag. | Image: Courtesy of Alice Bag
Castration Squad portraits by Alice Bag inside Coagula Curatorial for "Heads Will Roll." | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
Castration Squad portraits by Alice Bag inside Coagula Curatorial for "Heads Will Roll." | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

"I thought I was going to leave my music behind and have a respectable career, and it always followed me," she says. Until a few years ago, Bag was a teacher. Still, she played music. Even when she was teaching the Pre-Kindergarten students, she wrote songs with the kids. Bag's visual art is reflective of her musical career, portraits that are full of the rock 'n' roll energy that often points to a secret history of L.A. punk.

The Castration Squad portraits were based on old photographs of the band members and painted on recycled canvases. In some spots the canvases are left untouched to reveal artwork that is otherwise buried under primer and paint. She used house paint and oil paint for the brightly-colored paints splotches that mark the background. The goal was to create something that was reflective of the moments in which they made music together. "It was a really crazy and chaotic, but colorful, time," says Bag. She painted the bandmates in oil using a minimal palette, heavy on blue. She wanted a cool color to reflect the members' attitudes and blue played on the "deathly aesthetic" that the band adopted, a sort of early goth look that fit with songs like "No Mercy for the Dead" and "Bat Thing." Bag learned to make frames during the process as well. "I had to build them and sand them -- I don't know-- five times," she says.

Portrait of Elissa Bello by Alice Bag. | Image courtesy of Alice Bag
Portrait of Elissa Bello by Alice Bag. | Image: Courtesy of Alice Bag.   
Portrait of Tracy Marshak by Alice Bag. | Image courtesy of Alice Bag
Portrait of Tracy Marshak by Alice Bag. | Image: Courtesy of Alice Bag.   

Bag equates art to punk rock; It's less about technique and more about the ideas that are expressed. "If you have something that you want to share, you have to be brave and do it," she says. She hasn't been painting for long. Bag picked it up as a hobby after moving to Arizona with her family in the mid-2000s. "When I got there, I was hoping to be in the middle of town near the university, I thought that's where fun stuff is going to happen," she says. "I was outvoted by my daughter and my husband, who really wanted to live on the outskirts in the desert."

In the northeastern corner of Phoenix, surrounded by desert and hours away from her friends back home, Bag took on two new tasks. She wrote her memoir, "Violence Girl," which chronicles the East L.A.-born musician's life through the punk years. (Bag is working on a follow-up, which will begin when she was a Cal State L.A. student working in Nicaragua and follows her life to the present day.) She also took art courses at a local community college. A class in oil painting led to another one on how to paint from photographs. Her first piece was a portrait of her former neighbor, Maribel, a friend that Bag considered to be like "a daughter." She went on to paint her daughters, and continued with more friends from Los Angeles.

Portrait of Shannon Wilhelm by Alice Bag. | Image courtesy of Alice Bag
Portrait of Shannon Wilhelm by Alice Bag. | Image: Courtesy of Alice Bag.   
Self-portrait by Alice Bag. | Image courtesy of Alice Bag
Self-portrait by Alice Bag. | Image: Courtesy of Alice Bag.

"I started painting when I was in Arizona because I didn't have any friends," says Bag. Painting wasn't just a reminder of people in Los Angeles, it was something she could share with the friends who lived one state over from her. She posted photos of the paintings online and got encouragement from her pals, including artist Kelly Thompson, who curated "Heads Will Roll." After Bag moved back to L.A., Thompson asked her to be part of the show.

With the Castration Squad pieces, Bag is doing more than simply capturing a moment in the lives of her inner circle. She's bringing to light parts of L.A. punk history that have long been ignored. This is a major part of Bag's work that extends beyond the paintings. She has interviewed a number of women from the L.A. punk underground-- including Jane Wiedlin (The Go-Go's), Philomena Bessy (Slash Magazine) and filmmaker Allison Anders-- for a series that appears on her websites. She has also been gathering the stories of Latino participants in the early punk scene. She says that a lot of the interviews overlap with discussing LGBT representation in the community. "I was finding that there was this whole other narrative to make it sound like it was, the early L.A. scene, was a white male scene," says Bag. That's not necessarily the world that she saw take shape inside L.A. nightclubs. She's providing first-hand accounts because it needs to be done. Says Bag, "We can't expect other people to tell our story for us."

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