Hypocrisy Unfurled

Raymond Pettibon’s work stands some where between pulp novella, punk rock, graffiti and underground zines from the fringes of a subculture that often gets quickly absorbed by the mainstream. His work has graced the album covers for groups like Black Flag and Sonic Youth.

Emerging from the 1980s art world with a narrative impulse hard to ignore, Pettibon’s roughshod ink washes and figurative vignettes peppered with quirky handwriting gain attention as much from their content as their presentation. The subject matter ranges from circle-jerking soldiers, political and social commentary, poker-playing dogs, porcupines, surfers, baseball players (a personal passion of the artist), sex, violence, drugs and rock-n-roll.

Pettibon’s contemporary peers on the fringe include the likes of Mike Kelly and Ed Ruscha. Pettibon’s inclusion in the recent survey exhibition “Beautiful Losers, Contemporary Art and Street Culture” at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, also connects him to Larry Clark, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barry McGee, R. Crumb, Clare E. Rojas, Andy Warhol, Margaret Kilgallen and Keith Haring. Pettibon’s artistic influence on younger artists like McGee and Kilgallen is clearly apparent in their shared aesthetic.

A monitor showing a cartoon of a locomotive, a recurring Pettibon image, greets visitors to the David Zwirner Gallery. The familiar scrawl—“The last word of an expiring civilization…”—appears over the flickering images, accompanied by a voice-over. Impatience drew my attention to the gallery walls, plastered with groups of colorful drawings on tacked-up paper. The juxtaposition of these non-linear moments convey what Foucalt described as an epoch of simultaneity, that is, in pop cultural terms, like channel surfing through time and locating the intersection of experiences. The cacophony of multi-dimensional narratives presents ideological conflicts and animates the dark shadows cast by a stultified status quo.

Pettibon’s illustrative content is a scattershot gleaning from across the spectrum of thought, ranging from base impulse to the aspirations of a surfer catching the next wave.

The images and text that confront the current political situation resonate most strongly. One pair of drawings juxtaposes an image of white grave stones receding into space and a derelict corpse draped in an American flag. Above both images, the artist has written: “The editor is always right.” Overly simplified, perhaps, yet an accurate observation, in a nation at war, about the nearly total absence of images of the war dead. Other scenes of naked, hooded men performing oral sex refer to the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

The installation’s overall effect is a sense of dissonance, like captured moments in time upon which the artist comments from multiple angles.

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