A couple of weeks ago I was in Los Angeles for the launch party of a magazine called CARLA, which is an acronym for Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles. The first issue contains my review of John Currin’s recent show at Gagosian in Beverly Hills. If you’re in LA, try to find a copy and turn to page 36.
The day of the party I saw Raymond Pettibon’s new show at Regen Projects, From My Bumbling Attempt to Write a Disastrous Musical, These Illustrations Muyst Suffice, which had just opened. I counted myself lucky that the show was up on the weekend I happened to be in town. The same happenstance led to the Currin review, and I take any kind of synchronicity as a good sign. That’s not the only reason I felt like I had been given a gift when I left the gallery.
The feeling came over me midway through my turn around the gallery. It surprised me too because Pettibon’s work has never been about generosity to me. Rather, it is bleak, frenzied, and claustrophobic, displaying noir-ish paranoia. It’s not for nothing that Pettibon is recognized as a main progenitor of punk aesthetics. He created the Black Flag logo, which is to punk rockers as the Stones’ lips-and-tongue is to everyone else.
Pettibon’s current show is the tangled nightmare of history you would expect. At once oblique and incisive, he conjures historical narratives of exploitation and violence. The heavies are the white male power-mongers that pull the strings and turn the screws, a group that includes Barack Obama and Gumby.
As in the drawings of Daniel Johnston, there are motifs and figures in Pettibon’s work that appear to function like talismans of doom and vindication for the artist. Themes run from the dark corners of Hollywood and family-life to foreign policy and pro sports— namely baseball and wrestling. These are woven together into a critique of chauvinist values and destructive expressions of them. The history of men is drawn as a history of murderous buffoons with feet of clay, like the ones Gumby has.
Many works contain a web of text that repels my attempts to read it. My eyes were constantly pulled away, skipping across the jittery compositions. Other works have economical statements that give narrative push to their depictions in varying degrees of opacity. It is an exhibition thick with compact and intense work. To process every word and detail in one visit would require an endurance of attention of which I’ll never be accused.
Some punk rockers might hate to hear it, but the tighter the composition, the more articulate the message, whatever it might be. As much is true of Pettibon’s work, and he is a hell of draftsman. The exhibition features several medium-sized works that display his unmistakable technical facility that is as masterful as anything I saw in Beverly Hills two months ago.
The smallest, most sparse works are framed, which seems like kind of an ironic move. They looked like storyboards for one of those movies Andy Warhol produced in the early 1970s starring Joe Dallesandro where he wanders around and shoots heroin and has sex with people.
Punk is hard to define but most people understand that it has something to do with antipathy for The Mainstream and beyond that they are satisfied to know it when they see it. Trying to put a fine point on punk rock is beside the point in regard to Pettibon’s work anyway. It looms large in his legend, but his expressions of anguish and outrage, aggression and acquiescence transcend style. Familiar forms are abstracted in service to Pettibon’s existential lexicon. He takes the poison and bargains with the spirits so that we might not. Now, what is the proper expression of gratitude? Buy some art? Vote for the Democrat? That doesn’t seem quite right. We can start by accepting who we are and watching what we do.
Just ask Julian Schnabel. In other art news, he caught himself in a grim technological struggle with his phone. Apparently he was talking to it and was inadvertently tweeting everything he said. Eventually, he noticed and bailed. His helpless, confused struggle was tinged with hubris and pathos. From the looks of things he has yet to get back in the ring. Watching the tweets unravel, I thought of Raymond Pettibon and how you have to feel the pain to really lay the blame.