Somebody told me the other day to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; I told them I already had. I keep seeing people tweet at William Gibson, shocked and frightened that the guy who predicted how we’d eventually overdose on technology seems surprised by how awful things have gotten. RoboCop, They Live, and all those other sci-fi movies from the ’80s that people used to call campy seem so damn relevant now. A friend recently joked that “Evil, racist Fox Mulder (Steve Bannon) is really in charge of the White House.” People keep comparing the current political situation to Harry Potter.
That last one I couldn’t have called, but all the other stuff unfortunately makes sense to me. It makes sense the way Raymond Pettibon’s work does. Walking through multiple floors of the New Museum, currently playing home to his first major survey exhibit in New York City, Raymond: Pettibon: A Pen of All Work, I couldn’t help but think about all those cultural threads coming together — all the art we spent our time reading or looking at before that makes up a canon summing up the here and now. We could call it “pre-dystopia” or something like that, though I’d rather leave the labeling to the critics.
What’s distinct about Pettibon is that he hasn’t spent his time drawing his ideas of what might be; his art has always explored how fucked up and strange the world already is. It’s essentially one long process of an artist trying to figure out this GIF of a dumpster fire we call America. If you’re just passing through the New Museum, unfamiliar with Pettibon maybe save a few album covers he drew, the message that shouldn’t be lost on you is this: things run deeper than we want to admit. Today’s disaster didn’t start with Trump or Obama, either of the Bushes or Reagan. Pettibon’s got drawings of president #45, sure, but on the fourth and possibly most striking floor of the exhibit, those drawings are in close proximity to images of other American presidents, plus Osama bin Laden, Lenin, Hitler, and other bad guys and horrible events from the 20th and 21st centuries. The whole show spans six presidents, 9/11, multiple wars, and a crossover into the weird and frightening, brave new world we’re living in. Looking over so much of his work in one place, it becomes clear how attuned Pettibon is to the fact that all leaders do bad things, and how that’s a big part of what got us into this current dystopia. We seem to finally be catching up to what Pettibon has been saying through his work — and, if you can transcribe it, his Twitter account — all along.
It might not look like there’s a message in the countless drawings tacked to the walls next to framed paintings and murals — here today on the New Museum’s walls, gone when the exhibit is finished — but there is. There’s a buildup as you climb the floors: drawings of Jesus early on, Black Flag and Sonic Youth record covers and flyers next, the baseball drawings that I find the most interesting, and then, finally, the fourth floor with the crowds of tourists, people who read about the show in the Times, students and punks in Cro-Mags shirts and denim jackets covered in patches, or the bearded and bespectacled hardcore kids all grown up and ushering their children around, many of them crowded around the image of one of our most iconic superheroes, his face looking a lot like Reagan’s as he gets decked, with the caption reading, “Do you see stars, Fascist Superman?” Some of them take pictures of the art because it seems to have extra-special significance right now — it’s part of that canon, one that I’m guessing Pettibon doesn’t want to be included in.
A lot of these people probably know the artist because of his association with bands whose best records came out during a particularly fertile time for the American underground, but the theme running through Pettibon’s work is much more than rebellion. Whether he’s drawing cops, dictators, or American presidents, he’s telling us that people will abuse their power and that abuse will lead to untold horrors and the suffering of innocent people. But in Pettibon’s work — versus, say, George Orwell or Margaret Atwood — it’s not a parable or a possible future scenario. What’s frighteningly noticeable in 2017, more than ever before, is that Pettibon’s talking about the here and now. Things are terrifying and bad, they always have been, and they don’t look like they’re changing anytime soon.
There’s more to it, though. The very literary work — with nods to authors from Henry James to Marcel Proust throughout — of the California-born Pettibon often echoes Joan Didion and Nathanael West, the grotesqueness of The Day of the Locust and plenty of “Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” It’s about these ideas we as a country once had, visions of “American exceptionalism” and how they rot from the inside out. His art contains flashes of the LSD burnouts in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and glimpses of the wasted American youth from books like Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. A specific strain of California culture is noticeable in his paintings of surfers and revolutionaries, telling stories of a beautiful but damaged place. Just like it has for all of those authors, for Pettibon, California and all of its failed promises represent America.
And yet, amid all the tyrants and criminals like Charles Manson, there are trains, surfers, Gumby, and Batman. There is the hippie with a gun saying, “Your money and your drugs, man,” above the slogan, “Legalize Heroin, Ban Hippies (and New Yorkers).” Pettibon draws what he knows, what he’s experienced, loved, hated, and feared. His art is about the American and human experience, the absurdity and weirdness of it all. He calls out man’s inhumanity and sheer stupidity, but when you peel away another layer, or stare at his work a little longer, you can also find bits of beauty and light. The hope that, however cruel this world can be, no matter how horrible people are, it’s not all terrible, because at least there are things to love and others to laugh at. Pettibon’s art, like any good novel that ages so well over time it’s able to fit into contemporary cultural conversations, might not have been made with a specific message in mind. Yet today especially, it sends one.
Raymond: Pettibon: A Pen of All Work continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 9.