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|Subculture goes to the Library
by Melissa Dunn
|Ann Temkin and Hamza Walker, editors, Raymond Pettibon: A Reader, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1998, 252 pages, $24.95.
It's about time Los Angeles artist Raymond Pettibon got attention from a major museum east of the Mississippi. And in fact, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago have teamed up to produce a major survey of his work, "Raymond Pettibon," which is also appearing at the Drawing Center in New York and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
Having grown up in the Los Angeles of the '70s and '80s, I can relate to Pettibon's sensibilities, which were formed in the punk rock and zine subcultures of the Reagan years. Pettibon was a local hero, and as suburban teenagers we wore his macabre drawings on tee shirts to freak out our parents and teachers.
I was hoping that a major catalogue would accompany his formal coming out. Instead, this exhibition is accompanied by two publications, both of them rather unusual and neither of which really documents the show. Thinking of You is a compilation of over 100 variations on one image -- a silhouetted drawing of a penis. The book that concerns us here, Raymond Pettibon: A Reader, is notably more overtly literary.
As implied by the word "Reader" in its title, this book is more about texts than images. It places Pettibon's famously dour cartoons in the context of a sort of highbrow Readers' Digest-style condensed library.
Fifty-six of Pettibon's drawings are interspersed between 62 literary excerpts of no longer than five pages each, presented in no particular order. The idea, says Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker, is for the drawings to resonate with the texts.
And what a set of texts they are. All the biggies of the "Western tradition" are represented. To select some at random: Rilke, Alice James, Flaubert, Cattulus, Mallarmé, Proust, Mickey Spillane, Beckett. And to balance the literary, there's a theological treatise by St. Augustine, some scientific observations by Sir Thomas Browne, philosophy by Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the rantings of Charles Manson (something you won't find in the Norton anthologies of literature).
In this respect the book is an accessible, humorous anthology-lite which provides excellent bedtime, train and lavatory reading.
An additional section includes five essays that are more conventional -- texts by Walker and fellow curator Anne Temkin and by critics Benjamin Buchloh and Peter Schjeldahl. The fifth entry in this group is a fiendishly hilarious essay by Bernard Welt titled "A Reply to My Critics," which provides a fictional artist's jailhouse defense against charges that he murdered a curator as a performance piece. The artist reveals a preoccupation with violence and a penchant for quoting the works of Edgar Allen Poe.
But does this collection of literary texts enhance our understanding of Pettibon's work? Just what exactly does an artist mainly known for his adolescent style, pathological subjects (addiction, sadism, sexual disorders, violence), pop culture characters (Gumby, Elvis, Ronald Reagan) and association with fanzines and punk rock have to do with the likes of Bacon (the philosopher, not the artist) or Augustine?
In search of an answer, I turned to Walker, who co-edited the catalogue. He cautioned that while Pettibon collaborated with the curators on the selection of texts, the artist refutes any literal interpretation of these texts as "sources" for his work. The texts represent things Pettibon thinks about -- an inner-world of voices and narratives tuned into frequencies out there in the cultural landscape.
The book does reflect something of the mayhem of Pettibon's working method. Pettibon's studio, for instance, is reputed to be stacked with piles and piles of books, arranged in the same sort of random order used in the catalogue. The artist refers to a personal "database" of texts that are consequently mutated beyond recognition by his own weird concerns.
Buchloh's essay argues that it is in part the fragmentary and disassociated nature of Pettibon's "quotations" which make them so effective. They function as "sudden epiphanies of voice," writes Buchloh, which "rupture the apparent homogeneity of the anomic and aphasic totality" of contemporary culture. But if it is in fact the dislocation of Pettibon's quotations that makes them so powerful, then why reintroduce his drawings to these texts?
Walker responded to this question by noting that Pettibon's audience already knows "the narrative" implied in his captioned drawings. The themes have been fully absorbed: voyeurism, paranoia, monomania, religious fervor, murderous intentions, beauty, memory, longing. Walker described the experience of flipping through this book not unlike "flipping the channels on your television."
While the implied equivalence of Maury Povich and Charles Baudelaire is amusing, in the end the book doesn't do justice to Pettibon's drawings. They get lost in this intertextual cacophony. For all its highbrow pretensions, this book isn't a "serious" reconsideration of Pettibon's place in art history, as the work itself takes the backseat.
The interface between subculture and academia is always of interest, and it's true that work like Pettibon's is frequently consigned to pop realms as if to cut it off from discussions of ideas. On that score the book gets credit as an interesting -- if failed -- experiment.
MELISSA DUNN is a former museum administrator from San Francisco now living in Brooklyn.
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