Los Angeles

Raymond Pettibon

Richard Bennet Gallery

Raymond Pettibon’s 296 unframed drawings and texts take the form of a gigantic mock-up of an illustrated novel. Pushpinned to the walls of two small rooms and stacked five high, the drawings fill up every available inch of the gallery. There are moments of thematic coherence, but for the most part, the organizational logic is elusive. J. Edgar Hoover gets his own corner, as does Joan Crawford, but images of Gumby, fishhooks, light bulbs, and eyeballs intermingle. No sooner do you get your bearings than the rug is pulled out from under.

Pettibon uses the cartoon style of image making for its flexibility of message and swiftness of application. The accompanying texts speak in many voices. At times they are polite, almost 19th century and full of unusual, mannered digressions; in the next moment they are blunt and unyielding. They capture real-life suffering but only as filtered through films, detective novels, science, the Bible, and People magazine.

No single drawing or statement catapults Pettibon’s work into the terrain of profound mischief, rather, he achieves his powerful effects through the accumulation of detail. The mental climate of Pettibon’s work is wacked-out but very authentic, simultaneously perverse and deeply poetic.

One of Pettibon’s favored visual themes is baseball. Here he presents a generic image of a player with accompanying text detailing an episode in which Babe Ruth promised to hit a home run for a boy in the hospital. A similar picture is captioned with an idiosyncratic account of Boston Redsox’s player Wade Boggs’ highly publicized extramarital affair. The latter reads: “The dreadful woman looms large to him, is a perpetual monstrous haunting image in his thoughts, grotesquely enlarged and fantastically colored. I see her face everywhere. A hurling mass of portentious lurid fable in which my own real ignorance of life and of the world infinitely embroiders and resolves. I pick up the real world’s spin all too clearly now. 0-40.”

In Pettibon’s oddball cosmology, surfers ride giant waves; Batman, Superman, and J. Edgar Hoover speak; clouds throw lightning bolts. When Pettibon is not speaking directly to the viewer about himself and his working methods he speaks to The Man Upstairs in a mock-reverent tone, as if he were a medium giving thanks for the miracles of being alive and making art. Due to Pettibon’s ironic context, however, it sounds more like a victim praising his torturer.

As a fiction writer, Pettibon inhabits various real-life characters, living and dead, and scripts their confessions. J. Edgar Hoover talks about a government ruled by paper, communists, running after naked boys, and how he got off on photographs of the dead Dillinger. Pettibon reaches into common pulp buckets and pulls out grim, lewd, sometimes even gentle portraits that push the limits of what is acceptable and consumable. His genuinely off-key work is too weird for the mainstream. It apologizes, then mocks, haunts, and explores; its beauty and strength reside in a landfill of chaos.

Benjamin Weissman