‘It’s a dark world y’know?’ Pettibon’s words chime immediately with a drawing of a transected male torso pissing copiously—‘No title (Forgive my pouring…)’, 2005—accompanied by the legend ‘forgive my pouring into your lap this torrent of mingled uncertainties and superfluities’.
Torrent is right. Pettibon’s tide of skewed invective is as powerfully overwhelming as those big blue waves he’s fond of illustrating that threaten to engulf a lone heroic surfer.
The format of his new show No title, 2008, has no formal surprises—the sheets of ink are still tacked-on amidst swiftly executed wall drawings. The mood is scabrous —welcome to the USA, 90s, 00s. Pettibon resembles Mark E Smith in his love of repetition and the use of key motifs to relentless effect. One suspects all their friends are now middle class and grey. Pettibon’s unyielding curmudgeonly take on America is uncomfortable, but then the truth often is. There is in his harangue a bracing persistence to seeing something nailed down.
Next to the micturation there’s a pocket manifesto—a self-portrait straightening a canvas ‘No title (He can say that—he’s the artist)’, 2008. His political tone is now explicit; Pettibon has the bilious anger of a Grosz when confronted with the inanities of American foreign policy. We encounter our great leader GWB in camo outfit, ‘No title (If I was…)’, 2008, and then the diagnosis ‘I was playing (Army Men) with myself’. The wall drawings recall the tortured Iraqis photographed by the US forces, naked, abused, dehumanised and all mouthing the non-verbal utterance eghck. A disapproving JFK done on the back wall looks on. Germany is referenced in ‘No title (It is practically…)’, 2008, here US planes strafe Berlin, maybe even the very ground where this gallery now sits, the bomber thinking to himself, ‘and I have already decided to stay over after the war studying architecture and art history under the GI bill’.
The misanthropy is insistently presented. Oddly, as with the similarly discursive Julian Barnes in his new book on death Nothing to be Frightened Of, we find Pettibon consistently interrogating religion. A drawing of Christ, ‘No title (No pool of…)’, 2008, sees the red blood pouring from his side labelled ‘no pool of Alpine fountain at its source was purer’.
Barnes and Pettibon are ultra-rationalists but both seem to miss God and crave the surety of the faithful. Perhaps we need the fresh triviality Proust talks of—so Pettibon gives us locomotives, baseball players and his punk past with an ironic conclusion, ‘the world, as it ever shall be, belongs to Boy Groups’.
Hope for Pettibon might be a memory; the one moment of (potential) relief here comes in a fantastically ©rude drawing of a blonde fellatrix ‘No title (Entering Marlboro County)’, 2005, and seemingly dedicated to the girls of an old school. Pettibon then remains a dissident figure, a huffin’ and a puffin’, the last of the steam powered trains, a confrontational visual poet in and out of time with his times.
John Quin is a writer based in London and Berlin