Raymond Pettibon: Hard in the Paint
David Zwirner Gallery
Through December 21, 2010
Satire, that first cousin of Irony, has long held a high place in both literature and the visual arts. Voltaire, Boswell and Dr. Johnson, Daumier and Hogarth paved a road for the free critique of politics, social interactions, and the breaking down and understanding of class, race, and economic structures. Raymond Pettibon, who three decades ago began his career creating cover art for Post-Punk bands like The Minutemen and Sonic Youth, continues this tradition in the recent exhibition at David Zwirner.
Like his artistic influences, Pettibon combines text and image to convey a dystopic view of our late capitalist culture's obsessions with celebrity, violence, sex, and sports. His trademark slashing calligraphic line art and fragments of Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, movie lines, and Biblical passages portray America seen through a glass darkly, of mediated culture.
In the '90s Pettibon made the leap from graphic illustrator to something akin to the Bret Ellis or Charles Bukowski of the L.A. art world. His noir commentary seemed a perfect fit for the times; his screeds on paper bore an eerie similarity to the surreal "Buckethead" rant of Charles Manson. That was then and this is now; and now the cacophonous spew of pulp that is titled Hard in the Paint bears only a pale resemblance to the satirical wit that was Pettibon at his best. He still has his moments here: a huge decapitated head floated on an empty field of white, swirls of hair done up in some retro-'50s style dominates the composition No Title, "5,000 strokes…" (2010). The drawing calls to mind the surrealist notebook scribbles of Louise Bourgeois as well as Da Vinci's Deluge drawings. No Title "The Invisible Man’s…"(2010) reads "Four years at least hopefully eight" and shows a black man, who bears a passing resemblance to Barack Obama, either wrapping or unwrapping a mummy-like bandage around a seated figure. Is the mummified person a surrogate Obama, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers? The paranoia of the Tea Party Movement, the Birthers, anti-Muslim groups, etc. is alluded to with subtlety and innuendo.
This is not the case in the second gallery of the show, where this clusterfuck buries Pettibon's wit beneath a clutter of sophomoric graphitti. "Obama Nig" reads one line; "Norman is that you" and "My Negro Problem and Yours" a second. Further deconstructed ramblings follow. These eschew any attempt at coherency -- and further, eliminate any direct connection to a visual element -- leaving us to search the images in the gallery to make the connection (if there is one) between what we are reading and what we are looking at. A drawing of a Dalmation dog, a zebra, and a monkey are pinned below these lines. No, really, I’m not kidding. What, if any, conclusions are we supposed to draw?
The unfortunate effect of this conceptual slackness is that it draws our attention to look harder at the individual drawings. No Title "She must know…" (2010) makes reference to the Mona Lisa, but the execution is lacking the razor sharpness on which his reputation has been based. Tired rehashes of baseball players, vintage cars, and other Californian staples seem dashed off, lazy, and worse, cranky. More the work of an aging hack illustrator than a Young Turk, they grouse "Piss off" rather than hiss "Fuck you." They no longer appear hungry, just anorexic.
Punk gave everyone the opportunity, for however brief a moment, to critique themselves and society, much like a Restoration comedy. For once being on the outside was no longer an excuse for inaction. There was no outside anymore. Pettibon, and others like him, took the words and music which was being made and gave us the image. The failure of this work now, thirty years later, is perhaps because that spirit is no longer in us, as it is no longer in him. But we can't say we weren't warned. In a work he made in the '80s he draws a Clint Eastwood figure, circa Fistful of Dollars (cowboy hat, poncho, cigar), and a text which reads, "Don’t cry Boy. You'll understand. Even your goddam childhood idol has got to eat." - Bradley Rubenstein
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.