A Pen of All Work, at New Museum, NYC Reviewed by Martin Woessner
I still find it strange that there is a contemporary art museum on the Bowery, but the Bowery is no longer the Bowery. The New Museum is located a block and a half down from a Whole Foods and about three blocks down from where CBGB’s used to be. There’s a John Varvatos boutique there now, selling designer button-downs, vintage vinyl and even—if you have the cash—vintage turntables on which to play said vintage vinyl. I’m sure the framed photographs of the Ramones I spied through the window can be had for the right price as well.
It is impossible to ignore these things when you visit the current, career-spanning exhibition of Raymond Pettibon’s work at The New Museum, A Pen of All Work. Pettibon emerged out of the Southern California punk scene of the late seventies and early eighties, and he has been both profiting from and resisting the association ever since. “I was part of the punk thing,” he admits in an interview included in the exhibition catalog, “but not as an artist. I am not really interested in this kind of cheap historicity, which has ended up constructing a fiction of myself as a punk author.” As if art is about something other, something more, than constructing fictions.
“A Pen of All Work” is meant to prove, once and for all, that Pettibon should be taken seriously as an artist, and not merely as a caricaturist—or as the guy who designed all those logos, flyers, and zines way back when. Think Blake, Daumier, and Goya, in other words, not Black Flag, Minutemen, and Sonic Youth. But this is a point that doesn’t need proving, because Pettibon’s work speaks for itself. It resists the kind of cultural appropriation that makes a marketable trend out of a local scene, a museum piece out of an album cover.
Still, there are plenty of album covers on display, and zines, too—lots and lots of them. They are presented in vitrines, like the specimens or collectibles that they now are. Much of the art on the walls, though, is unframed, as if tacked up on one of New York’s ubiquitous, antiseptic, all-white apartment walls. In a couple of places—including, most prominently, the museum lobby—the artist has applied his brush and pen directly to the museum’s interiors, injecting some color, and some life, into an otherwise sterile environment.
The show is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, perhaps to suggest the seriousness of the work from the very beginning and, simultaneously, to resist the gravitational pull of historicity. Pettibon has both circled back and spiraled forward to a consistent set of preoccupations, which the layout of the show makes it is easy to identify: spooky renditions of the Manson Family in this corner, send-ups of war-mongering politicians, from Vietnam to Iraq, in that one over there. Still, it remains unclear if Pettibon has ever truly exited punk’s orbit, or why this should matter. “Nothing happens in a vacuum,” he once admitted, “and punk was, of course, an influence on my art.” We make our own history, but never entirely as we please.
Whether they satirize hippies or punks, politicians or surfers, speedfreaks or superheroes, the hundreds of works on display in A Pen of All Work tackle the same kinds of things your favorite hardcore band once sang about: futility, hypocrisy, mendacity, rage. From the early pen-and-paper illustrations of countercultural freaks and weirdos to the later, more painterly depictions of baseball players, cathedrals, and cresting waves, Pettibon’s vision remains anti-authoritarian and iconoclastic, more willing to puncture pop sensibilities than prettify them. If you want proof, try sitting through some of the home movies he has made, which are playing on a loop in a darkened room just off the one with the flyers for shows and the record sleeves. Sir Drone: A New Film About the New Beatles (bottom of page), which stars Mike Watt and the late, great Mike Kelley as kids wrestling with the weighty moral dilemmas that stem from their decision to start a punk band—Should Jinx cut his hair? Should he sell his surfboard? Should Jinx and Duane actually learn how to play their instruments?—is pretty funny, but I think I was the only person who stayed for more than five minutes of it.
Pettibon’s work insists on being marginal, even and especially among the marginalized. It also insists on telling a story. While studying economics at UCLA in the late seventies, Pettibon penned the occasional political cartoon for the student newspaper, the Daily Bruin. In addition to making art, he has always been making a statement—often a political statement—about the world around him. This desire to speak out, to have a voice, shapes and defines the most easily identifiable aspect of his work, namely its pervasive reliance upon the written word. So far as I could tell, none of the pieces in “A Pen of All Work” have titles, but almost every single one of them contains text—so much text, in some instances, that it practically drowns out the image accompanying it.
Alongside the opening curatorial blub at the start of the exhibition hangs what is essentially an oversized illuminated manuscript—complete with a creepy clown and a firecracker-wielding parrot in garish greens, pinks, and reds—that reads: “Good prose is of no harm.” A similar piece, located elsewhere, does away with the figures and the coloring, though it retains some red and black filigree. It strikes a similarly tongue-in-cheek, though slightly more pessimistic note: “I write very little now, draw even less—pardon these lines.” Last but not least is an even earlier work, without any kind of decoration whatsoever, consisting of nothing more than words on paper. It sounds like a personal mantra, or like something out of Wittgenstein: “Paint the all unutterable.”
Pettibon’s work must be read as well as seen, which is to say that it must be interpreted, not merely viewed. It is possible, I suppose, to wander through the New Museum appreciating the soothing blue-greens of his surf scenes, or the austere all-blacks of the drawings derived from his zines, but “A Pen of All Work” requires and rewards patient reading. One does not appreciate these works so much as decipher them. This is part of their magic, for it is the words that open up the worlds of the works, giving them their humor as well as their heart. Pettibon’s text blocks also open up the works to the world beyond the institutional gallery walls, snatched as they are from sources as varied as TV movies, political punditry, and Proust.
Occasionally, the relationship of the words to the image is pretty clear, especially when the work is satirical. More often, though, the words add a layer of complexity and ambiguity to the drawings, making them less, not more accessible. A display of some of Pettibon’s vast archive of words—newspaper clippings, annotated pages ripped from books, overheard conversations scrawled on scrap paper—offers a peak behind the curtain of the creative process. It shows that his juxtapositions of text and image are anything but accidental. But they are hardly ever self-evident, either. There is interpretative work that needs to be done, in other words, and this works in the work’s favor. The more room for interpretative dissonance, the better. In an age of navel-gazing narcissism and prepackaged newsfeeds, we could all use a bit of a challenge to our regular frames of reference, to our everyday understandings of reality. Referring to just this need for creative disruption, the philosopher Santiago Zabala has suggested that “only art can save us now.” He might very well be right.
One of the things at which Pettibon excels is in transcribing our increasingly self-referential visual culture back into messy, open-ended, democratic discourse. He transforms cartoons panels, film stills, and iconic photography into narrative, into conversation. In doing so, he reminds us that speech is always and everywhere on the verge of slipping from soliloquy into dialogue. All of this finds expression in some of the most moving pieces on display in A Pen of All Work, which stand out despite being relegated to a small, corner room of the exhibition. There you will find Vavoom, a tiny Inuit with a big voice, whom Pettibon has reappropriated from the “Felix the Cat” cartoons that were on television when he was a kid. Vavoom rarely speaks, and when he does he utters only his name and nothing else. But that name is a force of nature: it flattens forests and reduces mountains to rubble. Vavoom is speech act theory personified, and he has been a kind of mascot or alter ego of Pettibon’s since the late 1980s. Vavoom is voice. Vavoom is power. Vavoom is the word, and don’t you forget it. (And don’t you confuse Vavoom with Varvatos, either.)
But is anybody listening to Vavoom these days? I immediately thought of Standing Rock when I saw him, of the kind of indigenous resistance that now stretches—in the Americas at least—from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. In her touching contribution to the exhibition catalog, which is the best of the lot by a long shot, the artist Frances Stark offers a different interpretation: Vavoom as pissed off punk singer, venting his rage. That works, too. Nevertheless, it is hard to shake the feeling that this powerful voice has been silenced somehow. Vavoom seems forgotten, left all alone in a back room somewhere, talking to himself.
One of my favorite pieces of the show gives us Vavoom shouting his name across mountaintops, with these lines below, as a kind of commentary: “It is the voice of his love or hate, of his hope or sorrow, idealizing, challenging, or condemning the world.” Pettibon has lifted the passage from a 1922 book, Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe, by the philosopher George Santayana. But he adds a question below it, one that reaches out and grabs the museumgoer who actually takes the time to read it: “Are we really deaf?” This is an expression of frustration, but it is also a kind of invitation as well. It asks us participate in the unending linguistic process of making and remaking the world, which is equal parts idealization and condemnation, philosophizing and punk. Dante and Santayana are a long way from Black Flag, I guess. Or maybe not—not if you listen closely enough, read carefully enough. But don’t take it from me. See it yourself. Read it yourself. You know, DIY.
Martin Woessner is Associate Professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education. He is the author of Heidegger in America (2011).
Sir Drone: A New Film About the New Beatles, with Mike Kelley and Mike Watt