Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / It would be easy to cast the tireless, unconstrained Raymond Pettibon as the louche trickster demigod of wise-ass artist-snipers. But it would be lazy, even grudging and condescending, to leave it there. As his abundant – in one dose, perhaps overwhelming, albeit thematically arranged – exhibition “A Pen of All Work” at the New Museum demonstrates, Pettibon is more expansively a mordant fly on the frayed, hole-riddled screen between the mainstream and at least a notional counterculture. From that sidelong perch, he comments fearlessly on myriad phenomena from each domain with equal-opportunity irony.
Sticking resolutely to drawing, Pettibon sustains the aesthetic persona of the comix-reading, garage-record illustrating, ‘zine-making surfer dude – his brother was the guitarist and singer of the punk band Black Flag, and young Raymond did their album covers – that he started out as in Hermosa Beach, California. (He and his family now live in New York.) Pettibon remains partial to cartoonish human figures and extravagant verbalization – reimagining comic-book characters, appropriating lines from other sources, and indulging knowingly bad puns – but he isn’t reducible to a caricaturist, an artful quoter, or a one-liner merchant. The cultural and political sweep of his work is too grand to constitute mere visual parody, his narratives too sly and insinuating to be just zingers.
A standard Pettibon modus operandi is to irreverently expose the obtusely unacknowledged subtext of pop-culture figures or tropes. His Reagan-era work, overtly sexualizing First Lady Nancy, is especially outrageous on this score, as is his yuk-yuk drawing of Superman dry-humping Batman. (Elsewhere, he has shown Batman hanging dead after auto-erotically asphyxiating himself; I still can’t stop laughing.) And the demonically discursive Charlie Manson wall exemplifies a salient strain of morbid Pettibonian sarcasm about the repellent and insidious lionization of evil people. He duly image-checks history’s creeps (Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin) and their lesser descendants (Nixon, Trump) as well as a few heroes (JFK). The artist also knows when to lighten up and get droll, as in the drawing of the heavy-lidded stoner smoking a joint musing, “I’ve never heard so many nuances in Donovan.”
Other work, though, reveals a more conscientious artist who knows when to take an unequivocal point of view. A succinct example is the Statue of Liberty drawing captioned “BUT DON’T TRY TO PASS FOR WHITE.” He confronts the George W. Bush administration directly on Iraq and the war on terror. He drills deeper still in tackling the twisted logic of nuclear deterrence with a drawing of a vaulting mushroom cloud, channeling querulous H-bomb scientists in his text: “I HAVE MADE IT LARGE, IN HOPE THAT YOU NOTICE IT … NOW WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH IT?” In a more postmodern vein, there’s a wall of drawings of a chameleon-like Gumby who ends up muscularly erudite, suggesting both the intelligence and the corruptibility of children.
Pettibon is capable of not only busy, topical wit but also unhedged magnificence and heart. In his kinetic, towering, and rather painterly surf drawings, he fashions an escape hatch from his intensely caustic and politicized work. One caption reads, “DON’T COMPLICATE THE MORAL WORLD.” The overall vibe is not hedonistic, exactly, but perhaps edenic. He still can’t resist the sardonic impulse. In one surf piece, he lodges the boffo double-entendre: “I WAS LIKE YOU WHEN I FIRST CAME.” The line captures both the innocence and the prurience of adolescence, about which Pettibon knows all honest souls are wistful. And it hints at the comfort he improbably derives from conventional nostalgia, confirmed by another set of drawings that elegize baseball. That was America’s pastime when an artist like Pettibon didn’t seem necessary. Now, of course, he is, and he’s killing it. Long may he buzz.
“Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni. The New Museum, Lower East Side, New York, NY. Through April 9, 2017.