Raymond Pettibon’s American Id
Lessons For the Trump Era From the Punk Art Legend
Text: Tom Brewer
Raymond Pettibon’s oeuvre is a concoction of violence, humor and anti-establishment politics. His survey exhibition at The New Museum, “A Pen of All Work,” consists of works made throughout his career, which began in the late 60s and gained traction two decades later as his drawing style became closely associated with the then-nascent Los Angeles punk scene. Although Pettibon’s work is frequently associated with a nihilistic worldview, the exhibition proves surprisingly timely and poignant in the weeks after the election of Donald Trump. The Trump-Pence 2016 campaign—in all its unabashed violence, racism and misogyny, and even in the Donald’s own fixation on the implications of hand-size—seemed to be pulled straight from a Pettibon drawing.
Pettibon designed album covers, zines, and posters for his brother’s band, Black Flag, L.A. hardcore’s most eminent practitioners. These now-iconic black and white pen drawings were unapologetically crude—both technically and in subject matter—and were integral in the development of Black Flag’s image, providing the stark, provocative visuals that would accompany and embellish their music. The New Museum exhibition includes a number of these drawings, including Make Me Come, the artwork for the single “A Police Story.” Language is a powerful tool for Pettibon: while many other artists who pair text and image allow one to eclipse the other, he is exceptionally adept at balancing word and image. The writing accentuates the sexual connotations of the already-shocking picture, turning it into a rape scene, albeit a re-cast one: a handgun stands in for the penis, while the police officer, both a symbol and enactor of oppression, plays the role of the victim. This transgressive confusion and equation of violence, sexuality, and power confronts the structural niceties and assumptions by which most Americans live. Pettibon’s exact motives are obscure—while his works are aggressively explicit, both in their visuals and language, the artist nonetheless allows for ambiguity, and provides ample space for the viewer. Once we move past the work’s initial shock value and humor, a complex set of emotions arise: the paradox of the artist’s apparent hatred for cops and the cop’s apparent victimization, the implication of viewer and artist alike in a moment of depraved sexual violence, the explication of the close relationship between terrorism and run-of-the-mill authority.
“His interest is in foregrounding societal undertones and explicating taboos, turning subtext to surface.”
Pettibon’s visual style draws upon a wide variety of sources, most evidently the morass of American commercial illustration. His aesthetic, while stylish and coherent, is technically unrefined. The roughness of the technique works to his advantage: the appearance of amateurishness endows the work with a degree of accessibility, appropriating the familiar visual lexicon of teenage doodling, traced comic book characters, and boorish caricatures. Certain recognizable character-types—superheroes, police officers, professional athletes, and gruesome hippies—repeat as motifs throughout his body of work, providing a point of access to an oeuvre that is daunting in scope and density. Both Batman and Superman appear in numerous drawings, often together. His characterization of both undermines their cultural designations as “good guys”; they are shown as pathetic and power hungry, fascistic figures that obsess over sex and cavort with Rudy Giuliani. Pettibon’s caustic renderings of hippies portray the subculture as artificial, image-obsessed and violent, Christ-like in appearance only. The baseball player, another ready-made metonym of masculinity and Americana, is likewise sabotaged. In the pen-and-ink diptych from 2003 No Title (Let’s Fungo. No), the same character appears on each panel, nude but for a cap and a baseball bat, flanked by bits of linguistic double-entendre-laden text that suggests an underlying homoeroticism in athletics (“after taking ‘batting practice’ on the home team, coach has us shagging fly balls and grounders in the field,” “we get to hit first—we’re the visiting team!”). Another work, No Title (You Will Know), 2007, shows a gnarled-looking white man—this one in full baseball regalia—mid-pitch, while the overlaid writing revels in facing a black man as an opponent: “You will know why baseball is America’s pastime (and more than a game) when I tell you who he’s facing: Jackie Robinson!” Pettibon delineates the manifold unspoken hatreds that drive and define American life. As always, his interest is in foregrounding societal undertones and explicating taboos, turning subtext to surface.
“Trump is not so different from Pettibon’s fascist Superman or sexually depraved Batman.”
Pettibon harbors a fascination with modern American presidents; Ronald Reagan, in particular, is a repeated target of his ridicule. The phonetic similarity of their names—Pettibon was born Ray Ginn—may or may not have provided one subconscious motive for his fixation on the California Republican. The president’s personal history, his background in Hollywood, and apostate compliance with Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, provides another, more overt reason. The artist explicates the gulf between media portrayals of Reagan, the still-popular president’s enduring image as a charismatic, benevolent figure, and the reality of his legacy, which is violently racist and homophobic, financially elitist, and generally blood-soaked. Likewise, Pettibon lambasts the hypocrisy of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s so-called “compassionate conservatism,” representing their profit-driven warmongering as an inconsiderate and self-indulgent trigger-happiness, Bush Jr. appearing with literal blood on his hands or as a cocky fighter pilot.
The sheer volume of work on view in this exhibition is breathtaking. Over 700 works hang, in grids and salon-style, on all three of the museum’s huge floors. Pettibon tends to work in an intimate scale, and many of the pieces are dense with handwritten text. A single visit to the show will prove insufficient—the reading of the artworks alone can take hours, and Pettibon’s cramped, all-caps handwriting makes it all the more demanding. The drawings are grouped associatively, allowing pieces from different periods of his career to generate conversation with one another. Because of the artist’s vast footprint on contemporary visual culture, even the show’s less iconic pictures feel recognizable. His style has been absorbed and digested by skatewear companies like Supreme (which, in 2014, collaborated on a line of clothing and skateboards with the artist). His drawings were the basis for numerous American subcultures’ visual vocabularies, and his iconic cover for Sonic Youth’s 1990 album GOO is imprinted on myriad bootleg t-shirts.
The works are defined by their simultaneous crassness and erudition, apparently contradictory characteristics that, in Pettibon’s able hands, enhance and augment one another. His comical and explicit fixation on penises is unabashedly juvenile, but in its juvenilia poses a series of questions about sexuality in American society, and in this aspect serves as a mode of self-reflection, interrogating and implicating the author’s own equation of maleness and power, of penetration and domination. Pettibon’s skill as a writer and the breadth of cultural knowledge are prodigious, and elevate his work from the ghettoized genres of illustration and caricature from which he so heavily draws. His works refer with equal facility to pop music, literature, biblical scripture, celebrity gossip, and military and political history.
A drawing of Donald Trump—which is mild relative to some of the work displayed—shares a free-standing wall of the museum’s fourth floor with three other drawings. Pettibon’s work appears now prophetic in its particular indictment of American culture. The grotesque national id represented by the Trump presidency rings disturbingly true to Pettibon’s belief that, underlying all aspects of mainstream American life exists a seething hatred of others, an obsession with sex, and a desire for authoritarian leadership—Trump is not so different from Pettibon’s fascist Superman or sexually depraved Batman. Like Pettibon, Trump’s project has been the erasure of euphemism, the replacement of circumlocutory justifications and superficial niceties with overt chauvinism and unmitigated bigotry. The primary difference is that where the artist saw danger, the politician saw opportunity.