A wondrously bloated elephant dangles from a crane, the unlikely victim of auto-erotic asphyxiation. Hastily achieved in an inky blur of cross-hatching, the traditional symbol of the Republican Party, ‘Mr G.O.P.’ has become the unwitting victim of the desire to ‘get off’ at all costs. Greased-up quiffs, cherry-red lips, acoustic guitars and microphones abound in a drawing headlined ‘Better to party than to burn, burn, burn baby!’ At the centre of the page a woeful figure daubed in Glam Rock make-up wipes away a tear. ‘Plugging in wasn’t enough, thought Bob. He should’ve killed with his guitar like Woody, Jeff and the Honky Tonk Man.’ A coffin draped in the US flag lies ajar. In the gloom of the coffin sits George W. Bush, accompanied by the text: ‘He began to recount all the people he’d murdered or had killed … that might take a lifetime, but he had an eternity.’
Raymond Pettibon’s ‘Here’s Your Irony Back (The Big Picture)’ is a forceful, in-your-face affair. The title was daubed in blood-red paint dripping on the gallery wall. The symbolic cutting of the wall, far from suggesting self-annihilation, signals the desire to regain a stronghold in bodily reality: the standard report of self-harmers or ‘cutters’ is that after seeing blood they feel alive again. To the right of the title an open letter and subtitle of sorts read, ‘I am also sorry – very – not to have any other prose specimens of my own genius to send you. 8-12-07’, with an ink-splattered self-portrait of a forlorn Pettibon placed in the lower right-hand corner.
Clusters of drawings lined the outsized room, above which were painted chapter-like headings: ‘Israel is Mor(t)al’, ‘Tokio Hotel, Because Life is Worth Living’ and ‘Two Cheers for the Red, White and Blue’. The first grouping addresses the ‘War President’, George W. Bush, who is seen dragging a burning American soldier into Iraq, crackling flames licking at the page, or standing with bloodied hands raised before the ‘Greek chorus’ of compliant support. These are blunt and unsubtly despairing images, black and white save for the muddied red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes. Pettibon’s career began with the hardcore Punk of Black Flag and SST Records, both founded by elder brother Greg Ginn. His early album covers and flyers are seminal for a generation that saw hardcore as a politicized way of life, seemingly the last point at which music and serious countercultural voices were raised in unison. Pettibon’s reference to the manicured and saccharine teen Pop Punk of Germany’s Tokio Hotel clearly bemoans the loss of any genuine anti-authoritarian resistance in today’s youth cultures. As the show’s title suggests, irony will get you only so far, and, political satire and parody aside, such direct unvarnished criticism of US foreign and national policy is still frustratingly scarce in American cultural circles. If major artists remain hesitant about directly addressing the ugliest facts, it is also difficult to imagine which mainstream institutions in the US would mount the type of self-critical and engaged political work that has recently been seen in the UK, specifically the recent Mark Wallinger/Brian Haws presentation at Tate Britain or the ‘Memorial to the Iraq War’ show at the ICA. In this light, Pettibon’s is a much-needed voice of outraged redress, a voice that continues to speak out against intolerance and injustice.
Pettibon’s presentation aspires to the condition of the crowd, sheets of amassed paper clamouring to be heard like hasty protest posters. One large drawing of a blooming mushroom cloud was captioned with the pithy ‘I have made it large, in the hope that you notice it. Now what will you do with it?’ Incredulous and at odds with a political regime that successfully muddies and obscures the truth, Pettibon’s recent drawings have a new-found urgency and unswerving directness, the studied ambiguity of earlier works set aside in order to put down on paper hardcore-like expressions of anger and rage.
The motivated immediacy of the work calls to mind the drawings and posters of Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers’ ‘Minister of Culture’, famous for his many porcine cartoon policemen and direct graphic attacks on a racist culture. What is striking about Pettibon’s show is that the urgency has seemingly quickened his pace. Gone, for now, is anything analogous to his dazzlingly epic blue-and-green, mural-scaled, perfect California waves. In their place are short sharp stabs of revealing text such as: ‘With their own light and lash I have drawn them’. Somewhere between primal scream and elongated sigh, Pettibon’s view of America in the world doesn’t offer succour or redemption. The big elephant in Pettibon’s room is far from dead. Rather, it points accusatorially at the stark realities and horrors ignored by all interested parties – ignored at our peril.