Raymond Pettibon

This exhibition brought together a large selection of Raymond Pettibon’s work from the past eight years: primarily the pen-and-ink drawings for which he is best known but also his less familiar paintings, collages, artist books, videos, and fanzinelike booklets. The drawings, which combine fragments of text with images culled from American popular and underground culture, dominated the exhibition, due in part to the sheer number of them and in part to the appeal of familiar images drawn in a simple graphic style. They were grouped together in clusters of twenty or more, either framed, pinned directly to the wall, or both. Grouped in no discernible order, the works in each set were often linked by one or Two common elements, such as the prevalence of a particular image or thought. At times the placement seemed more random, even chaotic, the only similarity the drawings’ support (typically white, ecru, or gray paper). The visual clutter was both overwhelming and mesmerizing, producing a sensation not unlike the feeling you get when you’ve been channel surfing for a while.

The way to approach Pettibon’s drawings is to look at the whole, reading them not as individual works but, rather, as equal parts of a process that cycles and recycles images and ideas. Though not an easy task, it allows the viewer to pull out certain underlying themes in order to clarify both how the artist thinks and works. For example, in the Kunsthalle’s first room hung a series of ten framed drawings dominated by the cartoon character, Gumby. From drawing to drawing, Gumby alternates between the creative impulses of artist and author, one moment forming his amorphous companion, Goo, into a sculpture and the next, contemplating the transcendental value of literature—a fluctuation that mirror’s Pettibon’s own method of switching between drawing and writing.

In the rooms that followed, small paintings of landscapes or planets rendered in dark colors and with handwritten texts added were either inserted into several groups of drawings or hung separately on the wall. Taken individually, the paintings lacked the edge of the works on paper, contemporary take-offs on the dreamy canvases of the American Romantic painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. When shown alongside the drawings, the paintings were more neutral, functioning like punctuation marks that clarified a thought or enhanced a visual impression.

Two of the most surprising, and strongest, elements of the exhibition were Pettibon’s videos and booklets. Fluid and free-floating, the videos, which depict the exploits of a pair of punk-band wanna-bes (played by Mike Kelley or Mike Watt) or such underground icons as Patty Hearst and Charles Manson, are often perversely funny. The booklets, which the artist has been producing since the late ’70s, are a natural extension of his drawings, combining simple graphics with themes of sex, drugs, and violence that are photocopied and reduced to a compact pocket-size. Hundreds of these were laid out on a big table in the basement gallery, turning the space into a reading room of sorts, with the original drawings hung in frames and in a gridlike formation on the walls around the room.

Pettibon’s art is spontaneous, often messy, and filled with a countercultural spirit that was often markedly at odds with the Swiss tidiness of the Kunsthalle. Nonetheless, the exhibition succeeded in conveying both the complexity and the humor of his work.

Elizabeth Janus