Raymond Pettibon’s enduring themes run to surfing, cars, baseball and men in power: standard guy stuff, mostly. But he’s got his own ideas about these things, and if you add to a reckoning of his art’s character Pettibon’s engagements with punk rock, ’zines and comics, William Blake, William Hogarth and Samuel Beckett, all attempts at categorization break down.
This exhibition featured dozens of recent works in ink or gouache on paper in a wide range of sizes, all pushpinned unceremoniously to the wall. Pettibon’s long-established drawing style is spirited but essentially utilitarian; in one drawing, he admits, “At ♥ I am truly an illustrator.” On a rendering of a giant cresting wave, he further notes, “Some things (sea foam, for instance) cannot be drawn at all, but only surfed.”
The texts hand-lettered on the drawings are, then, primary, and they are wonderfully various. Borrowed, original and, most often, a hybrid of the two, they range from the nearly liturgical (“it is written all over our planet that life is not to be refused, not to be despised” appears beneath a drawing of a jewel-like earth hanging in a black velvet sky) to the frankly crude (captioning a many-petaled yellow flower are the words “she loves me—fuck the bitch, I’ll keep the flower”). Frequently funny, or at least sardonic, they are as often angry or sad, though seldom personal.
Current political life in the U.S. is a pressing concern, and like the rest of us, Pettibon is evidently so rattled by the state of affairs that words jam in his mouth. Painted directly on the wall in large letters was the incomplete epithet “OBAMA NIG,” the final “g” a little broken, as if the hand painting the words had faltered, or been forcefully stopped. This phrase was joined by “NORMAN, IS THAT YOU. MY NEGRO PROBLEM AND YOURS,” and then a run-in sequence that began, “ROÌ?AD RAÌ?GENOMICSTRAP.” The diacriticals called up such pseudo-foreign band names as MoÌ?torhead and HuÌ?sker DuÌ?, the subsequent unpunctuated language early modernist literature. But the play on road rage and Reaganomics, the reference to the then self-described lib- eral Norman Podhoretz’s 1963 apologia for racism (and plea for interracial marriage) and, above all, the dangerous chemistry of the whole unstable mix are unmistakably Pettibon’s own.
Similarly provocative is a drawing headed by the phrase “The Invisible Man’s Return,” in which a man resembling the President stares in alarm at a seated figure whose head is wrapped in camouflage-patterned bandaging. The Obama figure asks, “Change your dressing?” while the text warns, “This may take a while . . . all the wrapping up, the winding down and winding up. . . . Four years at least. Hopefully eight.” For sure, unpacking this image would take a while. But in the current climate, its uncompro- mising complexities are deeply welcome.
Photo: View of Raymond Pettibon’s exhibition “Hard in the Paint,” 2010; at David Zwirner.
In Raymond Pettibon’s previous exhibition at David Zwirner in 2007, the artist demonstrated shifting formal interests, moving from a limited palette to an increased use of color, while adding paper collage. This present show sees Pettibon continuing that course. A prolific artist who drew album covers and concert flyers for the 1980s hardcore band Black Flag long before he was recognized in the art world, you can still sense a “Do It Yourself” aesthetic. The rough-around-the-edges quality of his drawings and his unabashed insights into contemporary society remains refreshing.
One week before the show opened, Pettibon holed up in the space to make new drawings on-site, adding to work and writing text on the walls. The gallery left his drips of paint on the floor, reminding us that he’s made the pristine environment his temporary studio, but the strategy is a tease: If he had covered the entire space, to create a walk-in installation, the results could be unforgettable.
The title of the exhibition, “Hard in the Paint,” refers to the well-defended area on the basketball court immediately under the hoop where it is most difficult to score, and which is blocked off by painted rectangular lines. The term is also slang for an individual with a confrontational temperament, and communicates the immediacy of Pettibon’s work. Large block letters spelling out “OBAMA NIG” painted on one wall along with other text highlight the underbelly of America and present the attitudes of the most ignorant opponents of the first African-American president. If there is any doubt these opinions exist, the Associated Press reported that after his election, several North Carolina State University students admitted to writing, “Let’s shoot that nigger in the head,” in an area on campus used to promote free speech.
Equally in-your-face is No Title (She loves me…) (all works, 2010), a drawing of a flower whose accompanying text, “She loves me—Fuck the bitch I’ll keep the flower,” recalls the x-rated nursery rhyme jokes of passé comedian Andrew Dice Clay. While the connection between the images and the writing in Pettibon’s drawings is often clear, they are perhaps most successful when the correlation is puzzling. No Title (A look. A…), for example, a colorful and confident rendering of a grasshopper features the phrase “A look. A look understood.” Taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay about communication and the importance of truthfulness, “Truth of Intercourse,” the ambiguous association is far from a predicatable drive to the hoop.