Over the past 50 years, few artists have produced a body of work as expansive, multivalent, and formally diverse as Raymond Pettibon, the longtime illustrator whose early work for the Los Angeles punk band Black Flag set the stage for his later career delving into the often elusive, twisting histories of American culture. Ranging from literary rumination on baseball, surfing and poetry through to comical interpretations of the dark history of the American counterculture, Pettibon’s endlessly evolving body of work, often executed in pen and ink, twists and turns varied histories into an endlessly flowing stream of images, one that often functions as an alternative to the prolific mass media systems of modern American culture. This restless approach to his craft is on view this spring at the New Museum, where his first major retrospective, A Pen of All Work, has brought hundreds of the artist’s works to bear on the walls of the institution.
Given the artist’s penchant for poetic inflections and vigorous graphic feats, the exhibition takes a notably even-handed pace through his immersive and often overwhelmingly dense body of work. Rooms are divided not around theme or literary reference, but by Pettibon’s use of varied images. On one wall, a series of trains rush in every direction, while a room on the third floor features a collection of the artist’s famed Surfer drawings. Rather than dwell on the varied textual reference points (James Joyce and John Ruskin, for instance), the show instance allows a meditative progression of images, from varied deconstructions of the Christ myth to similar formal arrangements focused on Charles Manson, from punk abjection back to the comic book figures Pettibon so clearly pulls his gestural language from, and on to a series of his famed baseball players, each time allowing outside reference points and allusions to flood into the frame. One baseball drawing, for instance, makes a coy reference to German painting, reading “Kippenberger v. Polke” in a corner of the work, and transposing concepts of athletic competition and the glory of victory with the competing temperaments of the post-war art world. In another corner, he uses the image of Gumby, a signifier of youthful innocence who often played through fantasies by entering books on a shelf, to explore the literary history of Europe, posing the figure against works by Joyce and Flaubert as a parodic counterpoint.
What flows from this range of graphic material is the artist’s tightly-honed awareness of the image as a semiotic container for the conveyance of varied textual inflections and interpretations. Like much of American symbolism, his forms are quickly exchangeable for its context and functionality in the expression of varied situations or readings. Gumby is as much a engagement with youthful idealism as commercial culture, as much a counteraction between high and low art, posed against these literary giants, and his superhuman abilities serve to underscore the dissonance between the language of the imaginary presented by mass media with that of its literary forebears.
Yet this breakdown serves only to strengthen the sense of subversion that pervades Pettibon’s work, often amplified by both his sense of wry humor. His images emphasize the gap between the language of mass media and the broader literary threads they find themselves paralleled with, and ultimately, break down in the face of their complex readings. Presented alongside self-critical poetics and meandering, existential threads, his images frequently twist back on themselves, questioning their own existence, or suddenly explode outwards in a sense of political furor. In one piece on the show’s top floor, a mushroom cloud is accompanied by a short text: “the President’s dead, what a loss to democracy!” Pushing this sarcasm to an apocalyptic end of the imaginary, Pettibon seems to offer a world that pushes beyond simple text and image, one that winds the range of human history, and the complexity of human expression, into every aspect of its visual culture, offering new worlds that expand and unfold from the simplest moment.
The exhibition is on view through April 9th.
— D. Creahan
Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work [New Museum]