On the New Museum’s lobby wall, high above the elevator bank, Raymond Pettibon has painted an inscription of sorts to be read by all who enter: “I have been rewriting ‘that modern novel’ I spoke of to you…On th’ whole it is a failure, I think, tho nobody will know this, perhaps, but myself…iyt is a simple story, simply told. And yet iyt hath no name.” This particular story may not have a name, but it does have a title — “A Pen of All Work.” In this buzzing, illuminating exhibition — Pettibon’s first significant survey in New York City — the current tale’s told across 800-plus drawings, as well as a selection of paintings, videos, zines, album covers, posters, and flyers. (A triumph of the show: proving that even a mind-bogglingly prolific artist isn’t un-surveyable.) Here, think of the tens of thousands of works he’s created over three decades as an ongoing narrative — and think of Raymond Pettibon as one of the great American novelists or, more precisely, a novel-ist, a storyteller in a form of his very own design.
Pettibon was born Raymond Ginn in 1957, his now-surname once just a funny nickname given to him by his father after the football player John Petitbon. Ray Ginn: a bummer of a homophone during the Reagan era, which is exactly when he began to make a name for himself as an artist. His older brother, Greg, was the guitarist for the seminal punk band Black Flag, and Pettibon first became known for designing their iconic logo and creating their album covers, in addition to flyers for a raging music scene that included Fear, the Circle Jerks, the Minutemen, and more. Although his became some of the most iconic images of the era, Pettibon himself was more ambivalent about punk than legend would have it. Sir Drone, his comical, clunky video from 1989, stars two of SoCal’s best loved Mikes — artist Kelley, and Minuteman Watt — as aspiring musicians holed up in a dingy Hollywood apartment, writing crap lyrics, ham-jamming on electric guitar and bass, and trying to come up with a band name. (Two options: “Chairmen of the Bored” and “The Men From P.U.N.K.L.E.”) “I play real. I play myself,” Kelley defensively whines when Watt suggests that he learn some real chords. Through Pettibon’s lens, self-expression without craft just sounds like a lot of self-important noise.
This isn’t to say that Pettibon didn’t share in the spirit of the age. Like Kelley and others of his generation, he digested what the world fed him, only to spit it back out with equal parts tenderness and bile. Like any great writer, Pettibon is first and foremost a great reader, a mapper of the subcutaneous, that which lurks beneath the skin — of bodies, of myths, of systems political and cultural and otherwise — and even beneath images themselves. (He sometimes reproduces photos and scenes taken from television or movies or news or cartoons; other times, his visions are all his own.) His drawings are intense and uncomfortable and hilarious because they’re the products of a clear-eyed angst. Strange scenes, with an immediacy and indeterminacy akin to stills pulled from an unknown film, feature druggies, hippies, punks, roof jumpers, ocean surfers, world leaders, baseball players, superheroes, cartoon characters, mushroom clouds, soldiers, torturers, hearts (as in bloody organs, not frilly valentines) — each upended somehow, each punctured. In Ray’s world (most of his work bears the title “No Title”), Gumby’s got a boner; Superman’s a fascist; a fetus holds a sign that reads “Legalize Abortion”; Ronald Reagan’s asshole portends our future; Nancy Reagan inspires sexual fantasies; a father, son, and grandson swing side by side from a tree.
What has always distinguished Pettibon from certain of his predecessors — from Honoré Daumier to R. Crumb — is the way in which he sets words and images together, and apart. Text doesn’t simply describe or clarify image, and image never simply illustrates the text. Rather, they graze each other — at once marking and feeding off each other, charging the space between them, making meaning an oddball, almost offhanded thing. What more genuinely American gesture than to entwine visual and verbal cultures? “Paint the All Unutterable” he inked in 1990. It follows then that one must also utter the un-paintable.
“For a Long Time I Used to Go to Bed Early,” Pettibon quotes from Proust in a 1999 drawing, the phrase written across from the head of a wailing baby. Is the baby the reason the speaker isn’t sleeping? Or are these words “spoken” by the baby? Or or or? These pairings are like funny acts of ventriloquism, voice throwing, only who’s the dummy — who’s the mere mouthpiece — and who’s the author is to some degree muddy, muddled. In many cases, the words are Pettibon’s own, but in some, as above, they’re borrowed scripts. On display in “A Pen of All Work,” in two vitrines, are clips the artist/novel-ist has cut from books and newspapers and kept as source material, to quote from or to revise as he sees fit. Balzac, Shakespeare, and James Joyce are just some of the writers who appear throughout his work. As it turns out, Pettibon’s a true literary sort after all.
One of the revelations of this exhibition (for this viewer at least) is this plasticity of Pettibon’s voice — or rather, the fact of his many voices, his ever-shifting “I.” This artist/novel-ist is present too, always, if more complicatedly so, burrowing beneath many skins. In a self-portrait from 1990, he presents himself in a black-and-white drawing with a tear streaming from his left eye. Written below: “My Heart Tells Me That You Will Not Listen to My Words and This Is the Cause of My Tears and Cries.” We (the “you”) are now the subject of his heartbreak too, though we’re reading Pettibon’s words loud and clear.
Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work
The New Museum
Through April 9