The title of Raymond Pettibon’s current show at David Zwirner, Hard in the Paint, riffs on basketball, art making, the Southern hip-hopper Waka Flocka Flame and maybe even the YouTube parody Baraka Flocka Flame. By signing the gallery wall “Rajon Flocka James,” Pettibon, whose given name is Raymond Ginn and is no stranger to cultivating an artistic persona, is partaking in a little fun. He seems to have relaxed—a tiny bit—from his mad-as-hell 2007 show, Here’s Your Irony Back (The Big Picture), which was the penultimate Fuck Bush show of the ‘00s.
Hard in the Paint mines the American subconscious by mixing political content with Pettibon’s trademark surfing, baseball, and locomotive imagery. The result is a more nuanced critique of nationalism than straight-ahead rage. For instance, a large wall text combines the words “Obama nig,” a phrase based on the famous right-winger Norman Podhoretz, and a personalized take on Regeanomics that reads “rõad ragenomicstrap.” Rather than flirting with a Dr. Laura moment, Pettibon captures all of the undercurrents in the current American scene: the Tea Party’s screams of socialism, the role of religion, free speech and race.
Pettibon is no leftist cheerleader however—he distrusts the whole system. The disastrous greed of Imperialism is reflected in works that combine post-WWII iconography with the grim reality of failure. Pettibon’s ball players, trains and Cadillacs call to mind the obsolescence of America’s golden era—his baseball pitchers always seem to screw up a perfect game in the 9th, trains aren’t nearly as prominent as they once were, and cars just don’t look very forceful anymore. In the same way that the television show M*A*S*H was set in the Korean War but was really meant to portray Vietnam, Pettibon’s fixation on mid-20th century America translates just as easily to now.
Global annihilation by threat of the atomic bomb also seems to have a special place in Pettibon’s heart. Mushroom cloud scenes like No Title (Where’s the Green…) depict a coming-of-age and sexual awakening in the shadow of the bomb. Many of his explosions are seen from cinematic angles—he understands how deeply ingrained the Hollywood version of America, the one where we’re all extras and stunt men in some sort of spectacularly exploding drama, really is. Although he deals in the guilt-ridden imagery of those schlocky booklets that crazy religious people hand to you on the street, Pettibon’s scenes are so convincing that you just can’t turn away. No one combines war, surrealism, and the sublime better.
All nostalgia aside, Pettibon’s greatest asset might be his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. Works about the fast food industry, advertising, philosophy, history, fashion and pop culture offer up just a few of the things that are on his mind in this ambitious show. Where hardcore punks are supposed to be screw-ups, and comic books were originally thought to be for dummies, Pettibon emerges as the hardest working smart guy in the room. Unlike rappers like Waka Flocka, Pettibon never brags about money, even though he’s got plenty. Unlike classic rock bands when they hit the ‘80s, Pettibon never went synth. Even though his biography gets overplayed, the secret to his success might be that success seemingly never went to his head. Sure, his work often relies on conspiracy theories and an easy sense of pathos, but he always gives his subjects a gravity that makes them seem alive. He doesn’t care about lame art school issues of composition or whatever—he just wants the train to feel like it’s crushing off the paper through bullets of dripping rain.