BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 05 MAY 98
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Issue 40

Andy Warhol and Raymond Pettibon

BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 05 MAY 98

At first glance, the differences between Andy Warhol's and Raymond Pettibon's drawing styles seem so obvious that this unusual two-person exhibition recalls an old-fashioned 'Compare and contrast...' examination question. But in this case the results prove loaded: Warhol lapidary, Pettibon garrulous; Warhol Classical, Pettibon Expressionist... The feature which distinguishes the two artists once and for all, however, is their respective use of language, which might be respectively described as talismanic and everyday; in other words, long-term or short-term. Perhaps the latter triumphs. ('And I go on,' a voice in one of Pettibon's drawings confesses, 'not for the special weight of the words, or for any close relevancy in their reference; rather to feel this last link in my hands as long as possible.') But such reminders prove unnecessary. For Pettibon's prose - 'meandering around in language' as he described the late style of Henry James - involves a roundabout journey available only in the styles of certain authors, all male: not only James but also Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Marcel Proust, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and Harold Pinter, especially visible in his fine use of obscenity. The obvious Englishness of Pettibon's choice of forebears hints firstly at references to lavish beauty in language, secondly to the unsayable.

Pettibon is capable of summoning both at once, and his particular genius is for telling stories. For instance, the image of a grimy barge with a crucifix at the prow is captioned 'For the extension of experience: a deck hand'. No less poignant is a 29 word story illustrated by the corpse of a young, male figure hanging naked, accompanied by a characteristically elliptical text proposing that murder and the onset of sexual development are one and the same. For Pettibon, what he calls 'life', replete with Jamesian overtones, is a perilous undertaking: a sure route to bafflement and terror. When Pettibon fails to understand the situation - which happens frequently - one of two stratagems is brought into play: either camp or horror; both are useful means of evasion. The caption for one drawing reads: 'And I dream that, as the season advances, I may occasionally be carried by my slaves through the tangled bloom'. With the weak bleat of the word 'occasionally', the fantasy collapses. But of course. Don't slaves worth their salt invariably do as they are bidden? Not, it seems, in Pettibon County, where fantasy runs rampant, role-reversal flourishes unnoticed and bloom becomes more tangled than ever.

If Pettibon writes Songs of Experience, Warhol's Songs of Innocence address a different part of the mind, where pretty boys loll on couches and stroke cats - 'pussies' is Warhol's chosen noun - in a limbo where living and posing are indistinguishable. In these early works, figures seem motionless and self-absorbed, the tone is idyllic and the effect continues to be pleasing though the meaning remains obscure. The naughtiness of Warhol's ads for I. Miller revealed the same talent: a tone both humorous and knowing. Later, others made the jokes; Warhol simply witnessed them and copied them into his diaries.

The purpose of idyll in Warhol's films has never been fully appreciated: one person in front of the camera neither acting nor deliberately trying not to act. Examples are plentiful: Tom Hompertz at the water barrel in Lonesome Cowboys; Paul America on the beach and then in the bathroom in My Hustler; Eric Emerson's whip dance and monologue in Chelsea Girls; Mario Montez's pathetic bedside serenade, again in Chelsea Girls; John Giorno in Sleep, perhaps the most erotic work; and Couch, which displayed Warhol's moviemaking at its most perfect. Such films within a film served to slow down the action temporally, offering viewers a rest from logical thought. So important was this 'oasis' device to Warhol that he even invented a sculptural equivalent: those shiny, silver helium balloons which hung in space - any space at all - forming and re-forming in the course of time. One of his most obviously Duchampian works, this could also be interpreted as an image of the 60s: self-regarding though skin-deep, part of a culture which aimed be alternative or nothing.

Is it possible that the tone of Warhol's early shoe collages and the references to Beatrice Lillie - 'There are fairies at the bottom of my garden...' - represent a version of camp behaviour which seems less and less necessary with the onset of the millennium. Or does it? After all, Mrs Slocombe and her pussy are still as popular as ever.