Gumby, surfers, penises, Batman and Robin, naked ladies with machine guns, Diamond Dogs-era David Bowie, bats and skulls, Charles Manson, dancers in polka dot dresses: These are a few of the motifs that crop up in Forgetting the Hand, a show of collaborative works by artists Raymond Pettibon and Marcel Dzama at David Zwirner Gallery.
“I feel trappd living in a comic booyk!” one piece reads, recalling the intentionally misspelled ramblings of Pettibon’s cracked-out Twitter feed and summing up the aesthetic of this show. For their first collaboration, the pair used a variation on the “exquisite corpse” technique invented by French Surrealists in the early 20th century. Starting this past September, they swapped a series of in-progress mixed-media pieces and built on each other’s works with collage, writing, and illustrations. Hung without frames on gallery walls, which the pair has graffitied with bat wings and vortex-like swirls, with paint splattered on the floor, the spontaneity of their process is palpable.
Like many postmodern collages, starting perhaps with the work of Hannah Höch, lots of the pieces on view rely on jarring, darkly funny juxtapositions. At their best, these juxtapositions are truly strange and unexpected — i.e., a shirtless James Joyce in bowtie and eyepatch next to a “Wolf Man” surrounded by deranged handwritten non sequiturs; a diver in a red polka dot wetsuit against a sphinx and a radioactive-looking sunset; a tapir in a crimson cloak beside a smoking pregnant woman. In vibrant colors and patterns, they’re eerie and unsettling for reasons you can’t quite pin down.
But in other cases, you wish the pair had stuck with subtler and more original ways to provoke than just sticking wholesome pop culture imagery into sexual and/or violent settings (i.e. alcoholic Disney characters at a bar; Bugs Bunny holding a shotgun and sodomizing a guy with a carrot). They’re funny, but it’s a mashup formula that gets a little tired and precious after a while — it might shock your grandmother, but has lost most of its power among a desensitized generation.
Both of these artists got their start outside the art world. Pettibon is best known for designing the famous four bars logo for his brother Greg Ginn’s ’80s hardcore punk band, Black Flag, as well as countless album covers, from Sonic Youth’s Goo to Minutemen’s Paranoid Time. Dzama, too, has designed album covers for the likes of Beck and They Might Be Giants. These punk roots come through here: One satisfying aspect of the show is the sense that this pair is sort of trolling the monied art establishment of which they’ve become such a celebrated part — like they’re teenagers putting one over on chin-stroking art dealers by desecrating this whitebox gallery’s pristine walls with paint splatters and selling dick drawings for untold sums. They’re not taking themselves too seriously here, even if gallerists are.
The collaboration is exciting. The two complement each other’s by now well-worn styles to create something new. Pettibon’s rough, drunken comic-influenced graphics and wacky fragments of text (“Don’t go home with a hard-on,” “Popped heads like thought balloons, whuyyyt”) balance out Dzama’s comparatively delicate lines, floral patterns, and child-like illustrations. Aesthetically, Dzama is the strange little boy to Pettibon’s dirty old man; together, they’ve fathered some exquisite corpses, indeed.
Forgetting the Hand: Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon is on view at David Zwirner Gallery (533 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until February 20.
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