New York

Raymond Pettibon

An installation of a couple of paintings, a vast mural covering an entire wall, and nearly one hundred pushpinned pen-and-ink drawings of varying sizes that appeared to have been haphazardly torn from sketchbooks, Raymond Pettibon’s recent show overwhelmed the viewer. Beyond the sheer number of images displayed are the texts that form integral parts of the works. With far more to look at and to read than could be absorbed, there was a conspicuous lack of cohesion in the wall-to-wall display. A fragmented stream of consciousness evocative of ’20s modernists such as James Joyce, Alfred Döblin, and some of the Surrealists prevailed. The viewer was obliged to make the connections, to make sense of the seemingly random choice of subject matter.

This lack of coherency also extends to the individual works. Unlike early paintings by Andy Warhol based on pages from tabloids, or the comic-strip paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, in which a direct reference between image and words obtains, there is no such obvious correlation in most of Pettibon’s work; the relation remains elusive and highly ambiguous. A pen-and-ink drawing of the Statue of Liberty, for example, bears the words “It is I who took the first steps toward you.” An oil painting of a woman waving goodbye to a huge aircraft carrier is coupled with these wonderfully lyrical lines: “Life at sea is very favorable to the empire of personal liberty. You ride along feeling you have an invitation from God in your pocket. Your children are playing on the beach—except the eldest, perhaps, already a sailor.” And the mural painted for the front room of this show (perhaps the most impressive work here, by dint of sheer magnitude) features a relatively tiny, sinewy, blond surfer getting tubed in an awesome blue wave whose perishable grandeur occasions a blandly acerbic aside: “Well you needn't take my precious time with marking and re-marking here how the above is condemned to speedy frustration and collapse.” The influences of the comic and graffiti on Pettibon are obvious and often noted—in his highly schematic drawing style, for example, full of harsh contrasts of light and shadow, and in his use of word balloons and boxes. Yet the superficial transparency of Pop's appropriation of low-brow imagery is occluded here. Like the modernist authors whose writings he quotes or adapts (including Joyce, Faulkner, Proust, and Henry James), Pettibon rejects the populist criteria of unambiguous referentiality and narrative consistency. The assortment of quips, philosophical queries, black humor, and literary quotations says as much about the contingency of the relationship between language and what it describes as it does about any given image.

What unifies Pettibon’s pictures is his curious treatment of text as a compositional element. In some of the more recent work in this exhibition, the amount of text has increased considerably, as sentences and phrases gain equal footing with images. Yet the lyrical quality that characterizes Pettibon’s prose is often pierced by a charged image, such as the figure of an art collector with a large cigar in his mouth, a political personage such as Ronald Reagan with an erection, or the ex-president’s wife, Nancy, with her mouth open before a grotesque phallus, below which reads the scratched phrase “It completes her skull-like face.”

Alexander Alberro