Californian Raymond Pettibon (born in 1957 in Tucson, Arizona) is represented in the current exhibition with his illustrative pen-and-ink drawings. Together with large-scale wall drawings, the sheets, pinned unpretentiously onto the wall, form a larger installative work. A new element is the integration of drawings made as a child. Important solo exhibitions, such as at the Renaissance Society, Chicago (1998), at the Drawing Center, New York (1999), at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1999) and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2000), have positioned Pettibon as one of the most significant American artists of his generation.
Through a close amalgamation of image and word or text fragments – an impressive cross-section of readings from American and European literature emerges, from Augustine to Henry James and Marcel Proust – Pettibon’s drawings suggest a self-contained complex universe, yet one that upon closer inspection defies any attempt at decoding. For although they are graphically placed in relationship to one another in the drawing, word and image can only very seldom be read narratively.
The continual recurrence of certain visual elements – such as the train, the light bulb, comic figures, the sword emerging from the clouds, the Bible, exploding light – may lead one to assume that the artist assigns semantic qualities to them. Yet the connections these visual motifs form with seemingly arbitrary text passages can be interpreted differently each time. The pictorial carriers of meaning are therefore neither an illustration for the text, nor is the text an explanation of the images.
Pettibon’s approach can be compared with the literary stylistic concept of the “interior monologue”. He stages the fiction of a complex way of thinking following its own logic. Sometimes this can be comprehended, sometimes the viewer can construe a narrative sequence in the drawings, but often a drawing just stands there monolithically for itself, just as the text fragments retain their autonomous character in the microcosm of the drawing. “Vavoom”, the exclamation of a comic figure that appears again and again in his drawings, is a sort of symbol of this world. For in terms of content, “Vavoom” means both nothing and everything, and precisely because of this, exudes an almost pictorial presence. Here, the merging of image and textual content is carried to an extreme and, through the obliteration of the meaning of content, narrative congruence is reduced ad absurdum.
If Pettibon’s earlier work still provokes associations with comics and film noir, then the drawings since the nineties radiate an almost lyrical quality. Compared with the hard, rather graphic aesthetic of his beginnings, the stroke becomes softer and more painterly. Where his drawings had before been inhabited by American myths of the ordinary and the everyday, they are now dominated more and more by metaphorical pictorial motifs and consideration of the act of creating.
Perhaps it is the self-reflexive contemplation of the artistic process that leads him in these latest pieces to include his own drawings from childhood. In earlier works, Pettibon had occasionally integrated children’s drawings, such as ones by his nephew, into his drawings. That he now incorporates drawings of his own child-aged alter ego tempts one to adopt an autobiographical interpretation of the works, yet that is certainly not what the artist intended. For as Pettibon has emphasized again and again, his art is very impersonal. As an artist, he engages in the game of a fictitious “I”, or several “I’s”, which on thousands of sheets portray snapshots of a complex reasoning and, at the same time, the loss of the idea of a self-contained world.