Los Angeles

Raymond Pettibon

Robert Berman Gallery

The most affecting artwork often proves to be the hardest to write about, and Raymond Pettibon’s obsessive, noirish, text-riddled ink drawings are a case in point. Visually, the works have been likened to a cross between William Blake’s inscribed illustrations, EC Comics, and Gustave Doré’s engravings; indeed, Pettibon’s flat, graphic drawing style and stark, melodramatic compositional sense embody both the rawness and the peculiar lyricism such comparisons suggest. But what really marks Pettibon’s jumpy, metaphysical vision is the “ring of the voice,” to borrow a phrase from one of his works, as it manifests itself in handwritten texts that appear in almost every piece. The “voice” in Pettibon’s art (or is it a chorus?) seems to reach back in time, partaking of a self-consciously literary, 19th-century hybrid poetic diction (“JOINED WITH THE INFLICTION OF GRIEVOUS SIGHT BEFORE THE INFLICTION OF GRIEVOUS BLINDNESS THAT SO THE LAST SIGHT OF THIS WORLD’S LIGHT MUST REMAIN A GRIEF.”) At times he borrows, quotes, bends and/or (re)writes text originally penned by the likes of Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Joyce, and John Ruskin; at others he relies on contemporary language for doses of irony, dread, and hollow-hearted levity. “The apple of my asshole” is the inscription under one detail of a busy drawing brimming with images of dismemberment. All this is suffused with weird rushes of awe that blow through the work like the gusts, breaths, and hot air that are part of Pettibon’s idiosyncratic iconography. His pictorial vocabulary also includes fire, naked light bulbs, a single unblinking eye, bleeding hearts, various haggard faces, speeding trains, Gumby, Felix the Cat, caves, baseball players, bombs, J. Edgar Hoover, knotted and hacked-off penises, the question mark as fishhook, and a Jesus Christ/Charles Manson hybrid—punctuated occasionally by splotches of red wine.

This show’s 123 pieces were executed in black, red, purple, green, and gray inks on white, buff or blue-gray paper. The varying-sized rectangles were pushpinned to the wall in a horizontal stripe, usually three, four, or five drawings high, that wrapped around the gallery like a snaky run-on sentence. A sizable portion of the drawings contain circuitous musings on making art: as process, as excruciation, as fate. “SPILLING MY GUTS OUT—THE PERFECT WAVES IN MY HEAD FALL WITH A FLATNESS ON THE PAGE” is the entire text on a piece in which the only image is a ragged area of blue wash in the center. “THE VIEW FROM THE PAGE. THERE IS A PAUSE, HE TWIRLS HIS PEN VIOLENTLY, SPITS FIVE OR SIX TIMES, AND THEN THERE IS ANOTHER CONVULSION, AND A SECOND SENTENCE. . . .” When the phrase “every line sweated” appears, it sounds proud, melancholy, and overwrought. Pettibon also pokes at the tension and disjunctures between life on paper and “real life” with phrases such as “. . . never anything more than an onlooker,” “(the more I translate) the more I lose my place.” “THE REAL THINGS WOULD STAY IN MY HEAD.”

Pettibon’s texts leap back and forth between labyrinthine inner dialogue and the more distanced commentary of an omniscient outside observer, creating explosive pockets of sublime and sinister dialogue. He has a heady and unique way of breaking down and brooding over his feverishly heightened consciousness, moment by moment. After spending time with this astonishing work, it takes a while to calm oneself down.

Amy Gerstler