David Zwirner is currently showing solo exhibitions of Raymond Pettibon and Philip-Lorca diCorcia in his West 19th Street galleries. Pettibon and diCorcia do not have much in common: the former creates punk noir drawings; the latter makes engaging photographs that dance between fact and fiction. They’re the Felix and Oscar of the art world. Here, Pettibon swings and misses; DiCorcia, by contrast, hits a home run.
What happens when one of your favorite artists is in a stinker of a show? That’s the question I asked myself after seeing Pettibon’s To Wit at Zwirner. The show whimpers more than it roars. To describe the experience as underwhelming would be appropriate but not wholly accurate. Dead bodies give off more heat than this exhibition.
This is hard for me to write. I’ve been a fan of Pettibon’s work since I was a kid. He designed the cover art for most of Black Flag’s records. (His brother is guitarist Greg Ginn, the founding member of Black Flag.) I remember holding Black Flag’s record “Slip It In” in my hands at Princeton Record Exchange but being afraid to buy it. The album depicts a piss-faced Catholic nun, sporting habit and crucifix, with her arm wrapped around a naked man’s leg. To her right appears a short statement: “Slip it in.” In appearance and form, it resembles a comic, but not the comics I was used to seeing. This was sexual, in your face, sacrilegious, and gross. I loved it. The stark drawing was crude but evocative. It got the job done. What he lacked in formal skill he made up for in attitude and invention.
In 1999, the Drawing Center organized a retrospective of Pettibon’s work. It featured drawings, fanzines, artist’s books, and record covers. The work, hung salon style, filled the entire space. It was awesome. Encompassing themes from sports to sex, religion to politics, his imagery straddled the full spectrum of American culture. I not only loved his pictures of teenage bad girls, baseball players, and runaway locomotives, I also loved how he paired those images with literary excerpts from his favorite authors.
So why is the current exhibition such a bust?
For starters, despite featuring more than 100 drawings, the show feels thin. At first I wanted to pin it on one thing: the installation. The cavernous gallery overpowers the drawings, as well as the tweet-like statements hand-painted on the walls. Both appear unmoored on the giant white walls, lost at sea, floundering. It’s an epic washout.
The installation does not serve the work. But it turns out that isn’t the reason the show is such a dud. It’s a dud because the work is boring. Neither Pettibon’s subject matter nor the manner in which he presents his work has evolved. How many times can he keep drawing the same stuff? Isn’t there another way to show his work other than salon style? It feels as if he’s on autopilot, just going through the motions, churning out cocks and mushroom clouds and femme fatales.
I had a thought: what if, rather than make a thousand drawings for his next show, Pettibon makes one? The subject is a single icon: the surfer riding a giant wave. He could do away with paper and paint it right on the wall, like a giant panorama. That would be something. At least, it would be different.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s exhibition next door, on the other hand, is beautiful and haunting. It presents 38 photographs from his Hustler series (1990–92), which he shot in and around the City of Angels, the pictures feature a ragtag crew of male sex workers in moments of odd repose. (The glitz and glamour of Hollywood have never seemed so far away.) Each sitter was paid for his time in front of the camera, with the payment roughly matching what he would charge for his sexual services. The financial gain — 20 to 30 bucks — is grim.
The hustlers occupy unforgiving terrain: abandoned lots, drive-through restaurants, deserted alleyways, and fleabag motels. It’s a world of concrete and asphalt, brown paneling and cheap wallpaper. There’s no soft landing; this is bloody knees territory. Most of the dead-eyed sitters — whose names ages, and hometowns we learn from the titles — appear alone, lost in thought, in a momentary reprieve, their faces illuminated by a setting sun or a vending machine’s neon lights. DiCorcia’s handling of light and dark borders on Baroque. Caravaggio comes to mind.
What I find so engaging about the work is how diCorcia blends documentary techniques with staged photography. In many instances, the photographs made me feel like an anonymous passerby stumbling across the street, or a John on the prowl for a cheap, quick fuck. When he nails it, which he often does in this series, the work takes on truly cinematic proportions. I urge you to see it.
In the photograph “Mike Miller, 24 years old, Allentown, Pennsylvania, $25,” the subject regards a pair of idle pay phones inside an empty laundromat. With his shoulder-length hair, bare chest, and ripped abs, he resembles Matt Dillon circa Over the Edge or Little Darlings. The sunset, seen through the window, bathes the entire scene in a red glow. It could be a still from the movie My Own Private Idaho as much as it could be a photograph taken on the sly.
“Brent Booth, 21 years old, Des Moines, Iowa, $30” could be a portrait of a teenage Dave Mustaine. Taken at night in a fast food parking lot, the photograph depicts a young man seated at a table, a giant carton of Pepsi in front of him. At first, the scene looks like a candid shot. On further inspection, it becomes apparent that diCorcia lit the scene with an outside source to highlight the sitter’s blank stare, ginger mullet, and blemished skin.
By giving the hustlers their due, these men are more than just meat for hire: they’re sons, brothers, fathers, and friends. What I found so unsettling about the work is it compelled me to consider a group of people I’d never want to consider, or admit to considering, in the first place. The hustlers linger in the mind long after I’ve left the show. Jerry Imel, in particular, is pictured wearing a Slayer concert T-shirt circa Seasons in the Abyss. I used to listen to that record on my way to high school in suburban New Jersey in 1991; I was 17.
Raymond Pettibon: To Wit is on view at David Zwirner (519 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 26.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia: Hustlers is on view at David Zwirner (525 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 2.