525 W 19 Street, New York
November 23- December 24, 2004
Maybe it’s my age. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of experience I’ve shared with an irreverent aesthetic found largely in underground comics and zines, music and mayhem as I grew up in America. In any case, it’s overabundant in the work of so many rising artists today. Most of it, whether found in the halls of ivy league graduate studios, or galleries foaming with the waves of incoming emerging artists, is schlock; imitations crashing on the shores of imitation. Comics become a bore and a chore to digest when they originate from an unimaginative place.
Raymond Pettibon’s show of new work at David Zwirner in Chelsea this month lays to waste all the copycats and wannabes. It’s a big show with perhaps too many drawings that support much of the artist’s writing, or musings. He scribbles on walls above and below his drawings like a tired device meant to elicit a sense of freshness and directness to his brash drawings, and yet it still works. Pettibon has left behind the pen and picked up the brush with a sense of material bravado that reflects his prolific nature, or compulsion, to do drawings. He has not outgrown his roots but has cultivated instead a facility of expression that begins to literally transform the viewer through a derangement of our own knowledge. Is this literature? Poetry? Is it painting? Is it political? It is an alliteration of all of these artistic gestures.
Pettibon plumbs the extremes for imagery: the mundane, racism, evolution, religion, violence, sports, pornography, nature, beauty and, with a wink, Abu Ghraiib. He gives us carnivalesque baseball, mangy animals that howl for the Second Coming, noir scenes ripped from the movies. He peels back through all of this to what he finds to be bits of our true natures, often chaotic and unforgiving. The video piece, a fusion of drawn images and computer animation, is itself somewhat of a misanthropic addition to the show. In it the question comes forth on a wave, “Was he a cynic, an enthusiast, or merely and esthete of rough seas?” Pettibon is all of these but manages to stay clear of the role of the artist as hero. Throughout all of his choices the constant echo of his hand dipping into the ink comes forth steadily and with such a grace that a suspension of disbelief is achieved. The medium has been transcended.
Unlike so many of today’s artists that grapple for some street credibility, Pettibon’s work comes off as honest. The real danger in all this, however, is whether or not it all becomes too routine, if all the campy play turns into kitsch. If somehow, despite all of the crudity and force of will being splayed out in one of America’s most expensive cultural proving grounds, Pettibon becomes a caricature of himself, and the work along with him. But the ethics in that equation remain unclear. What cuts through the grime is Pettibon’s willingness to make work that dares our notions of all we consume. It’s a bit tough at times and bites. Take your time, chew slowly, and enjoy the flavor.print