As an authoritarian pall descends (however ineptly) on our fair republic, it’s worth remembering that it’s just as often been midnight in America as morning—and has been since the founders backed their exhortations on inalienable rights with the crack of bullwhips. Inconvenient truths about U.S. exceptionalism have surfaced with increasing frequency during the past 50 years, accompanied, not coincidentally, by a rising backlash that is cresting. For followers of Raymond Pettibon, none of this should be surprising: He has been a reliable chronicler of the nation’s dark side for more than three decades, first as the in-house designer for the L.A. punk band Black Flag, then as a zine publisher and finally as an art star.
Completely self-taught, Pettibon channels comic books, pulp fiction, film noir and literary references to engage topics from baseball and religion to politics and his own philosophical musings. His text-heavy comix-style drawings employ an enervated quality of line that amplifies the existential dread and hard-boiled cynicism bubbling throughout. Pettibon has sometimes been described as a graphic novelist, but it’s better to think of him as a crackpot seer, feverishly conjuring visions of venality and avarice, corruption and personal failing in streams of consciousness that threaten to tip into logorrhea—and arguably do, output-wise, since his efforts number in the tens of thousands. This densely packed career survey features hundreds of images spread over three floors, a daunting profusion best tackled by rafting down the rapids of Pettibon’s splenetic imagination with brief detours to whatever rocks and branches you find along the way.
Among them are such gargoyles of American history as J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon and Charles Mason. They’ve populated Pettibon’s narratives over the years, along with Jesus, superheroes and the artist himself as well as his alter ego, the stretchy Claymation character Gumby: An odd choice best understood, perhaps, as a stand-in for the moral elasticity that buoys the pursuit of one individual’s happiness at the expense of another’s.
Although the bleakness in the house is mostly unrelieved, one room of mural-size drawings offers a respite of sorts, with scenes of tiny surfers engulfed by waves rendered as curtain walls of green, gray and blue brushstrokes. The most beautiful works in the show, they recall those monumental 19th-century landscapes that linked the young America’s boundless wilderness to its promise of liberty. And certainly, Pettibon gives you the sense that these figures are free as they commune with nature. But his accompanying texts also suggest that they are trapped in their own obliviousness, much like a country that has regularly turned good intentions into bad outcomes.
“Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work” is at the New Museum of Contemporary Art through Apr 9.