Shotgun Reviews

Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work at New Museum

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Lux Yuting Bai reviews Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work at New Museum in New York.

“Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” 2017. New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work, 2017; installation view, New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.

Presenting approximately 800 drawings from the artist’s creative career since the 1970s, Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work at New Museum demonstrates the artist’s obsessive relationship with language and literature in an ambivalent tone that is both darkly ironic and lovingly inspired. In his distinctive caricaturistic style, Pettibon juxtaposes figurative images with fragmented texts throughout all mediums and subject matters. The combination is consistent, despite his almost schizophrenic voices in different series, whether they are celebrating nature, mocking religions, or attacking political figures.

Pettibon’s surf drawings, the most visually captivating series in the exhibition, metaphorically embody his joyful literary fetish. The surfer, represented as a solitary hero exploring and challenging the natural sublime, evokes the Romantic ideal of a creative genius wrestling in the sea of inspiration. (Fittingly, the title of the show is a reference to a Byron poem.) Drawn in brilliant blue shades, the currents’ patterns have flowing, organic characteristics that suggest a visualization of one’s stream of consciousness, or even hints of the rhythms of poetic verse. The figures appear diminutive against the monumental waves engulfing them. The tides carry a sense of increasing velocity; the hero is nearly submerged into the swells and swirls of the blue water. The expansive images with texts allude to the artist’s cumulative, almost compulsive creative process. All of the 20,000 drawings Pettibon has made in his life are captioned; the sheer quantity and the variety of words seem to suggest a form of logorrhea.

On the flip side, the artist uses language satirically to disrupt the implied historical narratives of political propaganda, religion, and mass media in America. He subverts quotes and slogans into dark, humorous, sometimes non-sequitur captions that reveal the absurdity of their contexts. Donald Trump announces, “You’re hired!” Jesus Christ urges the viewer, “Pick up your pens, if you can” as he will “inform you of all that has befallen me from beginning to end.” Charles Manson declares that “I didn’t tell them anything they didn’t get from their fathers first.” As these texts combine with comically bizarre, yet skillfully drawn, grotesque renderings, the works manifest how religious, political, and cult leaders manipulate and misappropriate words to hypnotize the public on an everyday basis. In Pettibon’s art world, language is both earnestly embraced as an expression of creativity and critically analyzed as insidious means of seduction.

Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work will be on view through April 9, 2017.

Lux Yuting Bai is an independent curator and writer. She is also a Curatorial Fellow at the School of Visual Arts in New York.