PRINT October 1992


He who does not enjoy his own company is usually right.
—Coco Chanel

Loosely rendered in a cartoonish style in one of Raymond Pettibon's drawings, “Vavoom!” is emitted with vigor from the orifice of an anus-head. Underneath it says “The world, fixed, as it is, to a well-defined literature, and a well-defined group in art, is all but meaningless now.” Of course this is not an explanation.

Composed mostly of inconclusive remarks and blips of affect emitted from the void to the void, Pettibon's stuff achieves the apocalyptic and aging-teen tone of much recent art from California. The art here is sort of like the flabby backside of TV: instead of everything being packaged and tidied up for you into recognizable if inane narrative tidbits, you are provided with Pop-ish imagery and lyricalish remarks the ride more like flat tires than bouncy punch lines. The incoherent voice emerging from it all, by default, bonds with the viewer (who is also implied to be incoherent) in their mutual nonattempt to suture this information into a “message.” What we're left with is the pathos of someone doomed eternally to emit speech chunks, to sustain a point of view for only a few phrases before changing channels: the artist as schizo-wannabe. The pages are very attractive.

“Remarks aren't literature,” said Gertrude Stein to Hemingway. And it's amazing how the esthetic defects of one generation are reborn as the strengths of another—in this case, how tossed writing salad becomes more worthy of attention in a gallery context. According to Walter Benjamin, the only rigorous way to write in the 20th century world be to compose a book of quotations: the book would be an orphanage for lines ripped savagely from the natal word-soil. In addition to the heightened reality of secondhand speech, the effectual nonattention span of reader and writer must be taken into account and reflected in zesty new strategies of expression. Pettibon's assorted images and phrases allow you to keep on switching gears and not invest too much energy in any one particular image or phrase; most of them sound like he heard or read them somewhere else and is just passing them on. In another “Vavoom” drawing, a stubby child figure throws back its head, exposing a gaping black oral cavity, with a Felix the Cat head smiling up at it from the floor: “The ‘artist-life,’” it says “persistently fascinated him as a source of plat.” “And look,” it says on the bottom, “already I have an audience.”

The strength of the work is in its lability. There is real pathos in this compulsion to exteriorize but not develop these select mental moments which imply but never congeal into a first-person p.o.v. It's like he keeps on broaching and withdrawing from any pin-downable confessional moment so you don't exactly get any voyeuristic jollies out of the whole thing. One peruses the work with the kind of low-grade, once-removed curiosity one would have about personal effects in a thirst store discarded and destined to be owned by someone else. Yes the myth of total transparent communication from one “self” to another is psychotic. Language is definitely opaque.

On one page there are scalloped lines that seem to indicate clouds: it says “No word from above, nor sign from beyond.” Uncle Nietzsche gives extra points for antitranscendentalness here. In other pieces, there are references to Gidget, to the decidedly unsassy tribulations of the groupie wannabe, plus general lyrical fragments such as “My head in the clouds.” There is also a recurring image of a stylized penis shadow. In one drawing, a man's profile stares into an enlarged peephole with his hand poised to knock. One of the phrases says “I soon discerned in him a rare intellect, and one of the most spontaneously literary (of an oral sort) that it has been my privilege to come across.” You get the sense that this figure, like the combined effect of the work, is knocking on the door of narrative, but the best we're going to wind up with is this image of someone at the threshold, with snippets of literary affect floating around him on the page in a cool noncommittal way. It says “Draw the soul out” on the bottom of the page. Looking at Pettibon's images, you feel an ongoing desire to evoke some kind of scenario or character that can last for more than a second, and the abdication of the same desire. We're left with the ingredients for a mise-en-scène: an atmospheric remark and a deft faux-cheesy sketch. It's funny.

Judge Shreber, the author and original paranoiac, endured sever mental strain for years under his system of “not-finishing-a-sentence or thought.” To the casual observer, he appeared to be catatonic. But he knew he was undergoing a spiritual askesis: if he finished a thought, his soul-voluptuousness would attract divine rays and God would bugger his every pore. He had to prevent this at all costs.

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer and critic. She teaches art the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.