Untitled (Where was I?)

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Bwog staffer Julia Butareva reviews the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibit featuring drawings by Raymond Pettibon.

As I walked into the Raymond Pettibon exhibition at the Whitney, a well-dressed mother walked in with her toddler. The kid babbled and squealed while I was trying to watch the video. “If you want culture,” I thought, “this is not where you should take your kid. Try the Museum of Natural History, or maybe the Met.” But after a few minutes of listening to several narrators making declarations like, “ ‘T’wasn’t me,’ quoth the raven,” and, “‘The world is big!’ ‘The world is small!’ ‘With a big enough O, you can swallow it whole!’” I began to relax. The kid was all right. It was all about subjectivity and polyphonic narration when confronting symbols of power.

Pettibon got his start making album covers for local punk rockers in LA in the early 1980’s. Soon, he became known for his works on paper and his skill at merging the avant-garde and the vernacular. Of late, he has included text, collage, and video in his work.

This show at the Whitney includes several gouache drawings on paper as well as an animated film done in the same cartoon-like style — confident, rather dry brushstrokes. The sources are all familiar: there are baseball players, 1950’s pinups, porn stars, surfers, and penguins. Recurring images seem to be those of power, like that of a black hole, an ocean wave, a cathedral, and a train.

The film is a non-narrative series of absurd yet vaguely familiar vignettes narrated by several characters who sometimes seem to be conversing, but at other times appear not to hear each other. A pedantic narrator who sounds as though he is reading something profound is interrupted by a chirpy-voiced woman: “Do you think I should wear my blue eye shadow?” Or a man is shown standing in front of a speeding train while someone dispassionately observes, “It’s all in the timing.” Mundane snatches of everyday dialogue are interrupted by what sound like passages from a romance novel.

The captions on the drawings are the same way: there is no central voice. All seem taken out of context, sometimes to rather unsettling effect. Some are clever and self-referential. “Untitled (He Waddles From)” shows a penguin, and a caption says, “He waddles from post to post, stopping at each work long enough to pose with it, like a magician pulling incongruencies out of his hat.” It’s impossible to know whether that refers to the viewer or the artist, and the effect is to make one suddenly conscious of how he behaves in a gallery.

Similarly, the various drawings of cathedrals and the individual voices that accompany them stop us from seeing these as symbols of monolithic religious authority; Pettibon exposes them for the personal symbols they are, meaning something different to each believer (or nonbeliever). Beneath all the cleverness with which Pettibon undermines cliché (“…like Jack and Rose on the Titanic, out love is here to stay”), there is something truly good here. Powerful symbols can stand, he seems to say — we just need to look at them from all sides.

Raymond Pettibon at the Whitney Museum of American Art

On view October 8, 2005 – February 19, 2006

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1 Comment

  1. disappointed

    Aw, the show is over? Darn you bwog and your out-of-date art articles!!!

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