Raymond Pettibon, No Title (Why should I), 1984, pen and ink on paper, 12 × 9".

Raymond Pettibon, No Title (Why should I), 1984, pen and ink on paper, 12 × 9".

Raymond Pettibon

Raymond Pettibon, No Title (Why should I), 1984, pen and ink on paper, 12 × 9".

Alas, poor Pettibon! Poet sublime of cryptic fabulosity, inkpot noirist, and restless chronicler of the muck and ick that splatters so freely, then embeds itself like a cancer, forming the blackest recesses of American consciousness. His caustic wit cuts deep, even as it elevates him high above the tabloid trash-scape that feeds his dauntless foraging. Though the press release for his recent Berlin exhibition highlighted “new works,” the show, a dense mass of text-image amalgamations on paper, included some pieces dating as far back as 1981. But it doesn’t really matter, because Pettibon is embedded so deeply within a concentrated continuum of his own devising; his time is always now, no matter the date.

Many of the drawings were pinned directly to the wall, although a few were hung in frames, as if in wooden boats adrift on a flood of paper. Overall, a stylistic dialectic was established between the artist’s skillful and intricate draftsmanship and a crude, childlike scrawl that I’ve never seen exhibited chez Pettibon, though it resonates well with a hallmark of his work: the dumb sarcasm of the punk kid who is actually too smart for his own good. One drawing from ca. 1990 consists merely of the words MY MOUF inscribed above two scribbles: one a circle with two scrawly lines denoting rows of teeth, the other a couple of UFO eyes connected by a V for a nose; diagonal lines above each saucer form skeptical eyebrows.

Like a devoted misanthrope, Pettibon takes joy in deflating hippie mysticism, the posturing of cheap goodwill ambassadors, and the linguistic strangulations of political correctness. Rendered in his idiosyncratic style and speaking in their own bemused accents, his figures are unwitting performers in a vaudeville of deadpan hysteria. Jesus, Satan, and Charles Manson all make cameos, though most of Pettibon’s characters are of his own devising—for instance, an aged, twisted slob who is pushed out center stage to scream, WHY DO I ALWAYS GET STUCK WITH THE OLD, UGLY PROSTITUTES?, a mentally-impaired-looking girl who announces, I GOT KICKED OUT OF P.E. FOR REFUSING TO USE A BRA, and a Bukowski-esque dude who plaintively asks, WHY SHOULD I SHAVE WHEN THE WORLD IS LIKELY TO GET BLOWN UP ANY MINUTE? One of the larger drawings depicts three young men with their flaccid cocks hanging out, comparing size, with slivers of cutout text pasted on to their members; you have to get pervily close to the drawing in order to read the invocations of fists, muscles, and “bladders of conceit” that sound as though they were taken from a pulp novel. The entire body is a phallus!

By now, it’s reductive to characterize Pettibon as a punk artist, for though he certainly helped to engineer the language of that field, he has also moved past it. Maybe it’s because I was seeing the work in Berlin, but I was reminded of Otto Dix and George Grosz—like Pettibon, anarchic and fearless commentators on a social body whose decay they knew was already far advanced. Perhaps future historians will come to rely on Pettibon’s satirical extremities to make sense of a present that seems, up close, ungraspable in its quotidian horrors and estrangements.

Travis Jeppesen