“Just because you're artists doesn’t mean you should have a platform. When Hollywood figures or artists decide to get on their platform, often that is going to do much more harm.”-Raymond Pettibon in an interview with Art:21, 2002.
Oh, Raymond Pettibon, how quickly doth recants thine own beliefs. The artist’s current exhibition at David Zwirner, Here’s Your Irony Back (The Big Picture), breaks away from his typically more ambiguous fare and borders on preachy. The show outlines the trials and tribulations of the United States’ and its steady sidekick, Israel, in their current conundrum as a world power. The show is an absolute cluster-fuck of satirical political cartoons undertaken in Pettibon’s typical style of a graphic novel, minus the organization and flow of real comics. Tacked up on the wall in a frenzied salon-style, the body of work readily takes on nearly every socio-political dilemma of the moment, from the war in the Middle East to environmental concerns to illegal immigration. In one drawing President Bush stands before the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner with several sardonic statements placed erratically in the frame, such as “skunked ‘em, didn’t we?” In another drawing, bloodied bodies of U.S. soldiers are dragged lifeless across the ground, forming red lines. The words “No stars here…but we earn our stripes” sear out from the white space surrounding the central image. Each piece in the exhibition, out of around 100 individual drawings, contains similar messages and treatment.
The overflow of information turns the exhibit into a personification of liberal dissent rather than a direct and moving statement regarding the horrors of the world’s predicament. Many of the images in Pettibon’s drawings are strong enough to stand up on their own sans the ironic commentary. The aforementioned “No stars here…” drawing was much more successful individually because of the simplicity of its statement and its pithiness. It is near impossible for the viewer to take in all of the information presented in the whole of the exhibit, let alone treat each drawing as a singular work. The exhibit, therefore, must be treated as one totalizing piece to be considered successful. The fact that there are four sections of the gallery in which Pettibon painted directly on the gallery walls also points to the intention of the exhibit to be treated as an installation rather than a display of several drawings.
The wall-paintings are at once separate and distinct from the flow of the show and also a sort of guiding presence for the main themes and interpretations of the exhibit. Two of the four are proclamations on the corruption of the state of Israel, with the Star of David distorted or skewed and drips of blue paint seeming to bleed off the wall and onto the floor. A third painting states, “Tokio Hotel: Because Life is Worth Living” which most likely refers to the German punk band Tokio Hotel, as Pettibon is known for his affiliation and love of the punk rock scene. One of their famous singles is entitled “Don’t Jump,” to which the statement “because life is worth living” possibly alludes. In the scheme of the exhibition, the statement adds an element of optimism amidst the otherwise totalizing pessimism present.
When one considers the show as a single piece, the meaning and interpretation changes completely, along with its overall success. The execution of the drawings and the set-up of the exhibit as a whole is a brilliant representation of the quagmire that is contemporary society, especially the circumstance of the so-called war on terror and the Bush regime. The overall chaotic climate leaves the viewer feeling overwhelmed, disoriented, and frankly depressed, with questions of “how we will ever get out of this mess?” As a political art show, the statements are made a few years too late to be fresh or jarring since public opinion now largely reflects the contents of the show. If the exhibit were to have been shown two or three years ago, it could have obtained a more potent and provoking quality as public opinion was largely still in favor of the war and 9/11 was too recent to withstand criticism. It’s amazing how fast political art can stale; the artist must create and present the works before the voice of dissent becomes popular opinion or trite. Unfortunately, Raymond Pettibon and/or David Zwirner Gallery were not Johnny-on-the-spot with this particular exhibition.