In more than three decades as bassist with two-tone ska band The Specials, Horace Panter has seen a fair bit of the world. Touring America and Europe must have had its obvious attractions to a bunch of young whippersnappers from the West Midlands, but for Panter it was an opportunity to gain inspiration for more refined pursuits.

“When I was on tour with The Specials, the rest of them used to go off clubbing after shows,” he says. “Me? I went to galleries.”

The main focus of the latest exhibition at Penny Lane Gallery is a collection of Panter’s paintings dubbed ‘robot art’ which depict traditional images of Japanese robots painted in a naive style reminiscent of Henri Rousseau; but whose iconographic elements led it a distinct pop art feel.

Red Robot Hero sees its mechanical subject mischievously cast in harsh primary colours as a communist leader, in a light-hearted affront to totalitarian propaganda. In another piece, mannequins in tracksuits stand in stark contrast alongside statuesque Chinese soldiers. He attributes the unusual juxtaposition to his fascination with the disparate ways of life in China, where his son spent a period working.

“It’s incredible,” he says, “on one side of the road you’ve got kids parking Lambourghinis and on the other, there are old women gutting fish.”

The iconographic element of his works stems from his belief that art should serve a purpose other than the aesthetic. Of course, being a musician, Panter discovered his own icons early on and his musical influences don’t so much creep as explode into his artwork.

He appears most proud of his scrapbook-style collages which he created in tribute to his heroes Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, and which are adorned with hand-written lyrics, photographs and old road maps indicating hotspots of the 1950s Chicago Blues scene.

There’s a story behind all of his works, even in the seemingly mundane. One painting, Violet Thru Black, depicts five hooded figures against what at first appears to be a nondescript concrete building.

He explains that the background is actually the site of an explosion in Fauld, Burton-on-Trent in 1944 when a World War II airman accidentally detonated 3,500 tonnes of TNT, blowing an enormous crater 100 feet into the Staffordshire landscape.

Panter seems to derive more pleasure from telling the stories that inspired his paintings than the style elements of the works themselves and proceeds to deliver an impromptu history lesson with wide-eyed enthusiasm:

“It’s just this great big hole in the ground which is cordoned off by the MOD,” he says, “few people know about it, even though it’s one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever. Seismologists recorded the tremors as far away as Naples.”

Robots, Saints and Extra(ordinary) People
Penny Lane Gallery
Throughout March

Image by Peter Charles