Los Angeles

Raymond Pettibon, No Title (Life Without Parole.), 2020, ink, acrylic, and graphite on paper, 23 × 30".

Raymond Pettibon, No Title (Life Without Parole.), 2020, ink, acrylic, and graphite on paper, 23 × 30".

Raymond Pettibon

Certain recurring iconography is quintessential Raymond Pettibon: breaking waves and other emblems of SoCal surf culture, along with superheroes, dogs, racehorses, Hollywood, and the endlessly malleable Gumby and, as the old theme song for the green guy’s TV show went, his “pony pal Pokey, too.” The new drawings and collages in the artist’s eleventh solo outing here, more than half of which were made in 2020, included mainstays but also addressed the myriad traumatic events coincident with their making. Pettibon’s familiar skewering of American venality and imperialism became even more stringent through a summer of dispossession and violence, pictured across media outlets as a vision of California on fire (and here, particularized differently in a depiction of Los Angeles City Hall burning). Clustered works recalling redlining and forced busing provided something like historical context. Pettibon’s exhibition felt especially sharply drawn in a fall season when the election and its national reckoning loomed. Always catholic in his purview, the artist produced this effect in his heterogenous images of homespun gangsters (as, for instance, in a selection devoted to the Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger), as well as incarcerated clowns; a fiery censure of the infamous red-baiter Joseph McCarthy; and a close-up rendering of an erect penis that, in a masterful curatorial sleight, performed a deictic function in pointing to another drawing featuring a top-hatted, simian Michelangelo with a figure that could be Michael Jackson, Bubbles, or an amalgamation of both.

Other works turned to the art made during the McCarthy era and under modernism more broadly. Many of Pettibon’s cartoons reference Malevich’s iterated and once-revolutionary canvas, Black Square, 1915; one drawing’s composition involved a line of five vertical and anthropomorphized inky-black monochromes. The slab at the far left of the paper voices antipathy to the word ABSTRACT, while another, at the picture’s right-hand side, predicts that abstraction will be an aesthetic BLOCKBUSTER. (None, however, bespeak the horrific 2015 discovery made by researchers at Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery that a racist inscription covered the painting’s ground, literally underpinning it all along.) Other drawings alighted on various midcentury styles, chief among them Jackson Pollock’s drips. One depicted a badly achieved version of his splatter surfaces in dove gray and a conspicuously runny shit brown, with Pettibon mocking the period’s nascent self-help theology as a companion to the validating mechanisms of high critical interpretants: CLEM SAYS I CAN DRAW. HE SHOULD KNOW. I CAN IN THIS ONE.

A terrific sequence likewise involved Jasper Johns and his equivocating Flag, 1954–55, contraband at New York’s Museum of Modern Art during the McCarthy witch hunts owing to the illegibility of Johns’s intent and the possibility that the work’s redoubled stars and stripes might be a gesture less of patriotism than of iconoclasm. Pettibon invoked two other works by Johns in a drawing that features a pair of X’s lifted from the Ballantine Ale logo (which relate to Johns’s iconic sculpture featuring a couple of cans of the stuff, Painted Bronze, 1960) and a scrawled punch line, MY BALLS THEY WEIGH A TON (a reference to the neo-Dadaist’s Painting with Two Balls, 1960). These self-conscious art-world appropriations, riddled with cultural effluvia, also acknowledge the avant-garde will to individualistic cosmos-making. Another Pollockian splatter—this one evocatively figural as though summoning the AbExer’s cutouts—was tagged 10,000 WATTS; along the work’s bottom edge was written GANGSTER WHITE WALLS. In a particularly memorable suite adjacent to it relating to Linn County, Iowa (presumably cueing with the Linn County Correctional Center in Cedar Rapids), Pettibon put the epic poet Homer into the frame of a mug shot alongside the text HOMER WANDERED IN, MASON-DIXON, MASON COUNTY LINE. A red-nosed clown in jail stripes trumpeted LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE. I could not but imagine the bard adrift in Trump’s America—what Pettibon clarified in an emailed response to my query on the topic as “a blind tour of the Southland . . . during the civil rights days,” a proposition of another kind, comparatively free from disavowal. One found narratives that, underneath all the seemingly disparate sources that they necessarily structure, prove the engine of Pettibon’s project and maybe also its subject.