Raymond Pettibon, Video Still from Repeater Pencil, 2004
Raymond Pettibon, Video Still from Repeater Pencil, 2004
Raymond Pettibon: Repeater Pencil
Nov 2009 - Feb 2010
Essay By Dominic Molon
Raymond Pettibon’s animated video, Repeater Pencil (2004) contradicts and problematizes the limitations and expectations of its medium. More complicated than illustrative, it presents a series of images accompanied by voice-overs that bear an occasionally direct though more often ambiguous or non-existent relationship to their corresponding visuals. It comfortably extends Pettibon’s ongoing emphasis on literary structures and sensibilities, as well as his uncanny ability to combine imagery and text in a manner that encourages uneasy tensions, sympathies, and dissonances between them—often simultaneously. Numerous motifs prominent in his now celebrated static works on paper—such as a diminutive surfer framed by a cascading wave, figures seen from behind in a car, or a train in motion—appear at seemingly random intervals to punctuate and disrupt the flow of the work, making the repetition alluded to in the title manifest.
While the work is hardly the Pettibon’s first foray into video (he has made a number of other videos, including Sir Drone, 1989, featuring fellow artist Mike Kelley) it makes the potentially risky attempt to translate a practice grounded in two dimensional presentational formats into a time-based medium. Repeater Pencil effectively avoids the trap of simply setting “Raymond Pettibon images” into motion through various calculated and strategic measures such as the previously mentioned employment of repetition (much like the recurring choruses or verses of a song) and a use of sound that functions as a device of displacement and distraction. The spoken phrases range from slogans or catchphrases (“break a leg, daddy”), to evocations of the sequential Burma Shave ads found on highways in days gone by, to more involved if oblique fragments of dialogue. They are recited by a variety of voices, male and female, that were recorded in such a manner as to locate them in an actual place—not the “imaginary” space of the video but a real yet frustratingly unresolved space somewhere “off-camera.” These sonic presences combine with a nebulous and fluid series of disparate images bound only by the activities of the titular “repeater pencil” on the white ground to resist a facile and coherently reductive narrative.
This approach is aptly suited for Pettibon’s representation of dystopian elements drawn largely and in equal parts from the clash of fantasy and fact in his home city of Los Angeles. Narrative fragments and vignettes in the video alternately evoke the sensibilities of film noir that have become so deeply engrained in the city’s identity; the actual moments of darkness and intrigue that are an intrinsic part of its history; and more benign aspects of Southern California life like surfing, for example. Pettibon’s affinity for remnants of past American culture—Elvis makes an passing appearance accompanied by phrase “the singer has taken refuge in proximity as others do in a crowd,” as does President John F. Kennedy, a ‘50s-era pre-teen in front of a ‘50s-era TV, and the aforementioned Burma Shave advertisements—is also featured in this work. Repeater Pencil is permeated literally or figuratively by these elements as well as a characteristic irreverence that Pettibon pushes to the point of sacrilege—a tendency most graphically demonstrated in his depiction of the Virgin Mary exposing her left breast and blushing with the text “all eyes on her” scrolling on the right, instantly recalling the cover image he lent to brother Greg’s iconic L.A. punk band Black Flag’s 1984 album “Slip It In,” showing a nun in a sexually compromising position.
The visual experience of Repeater Pencil is curiously prefigured in an excerpt from Sergei Eisenstein’s The Film Sense (1942) featured in the Reader that complemented Pettibon’s solo exhibitions at Chicago’s Renaissance Society and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1998. Eisenstein’s description of a “shooting-script” sensibility in Leonardo da Vinci’s notes on the uncompleted work The Deluge is interestingly apropos in this regard given the “scripted” nature of the video’s vocal parts and an apparent allusion to the effect of montage in Leonardo’s writings. Eisenstein states that “Leonardo’s exceedingly sequential description fulfills the task not of merely listing the details, but of outlining the trajectory of the future movement of the attention over the surface of the canvas. Here we see a brilliant example of how, in the apparently static simultaneous ‘co-existence’ of details in an immobile picture, there has applied exactly the same montage selection, there is exactly the same ordered succession in the juxtaposition of details, as in those arts that include the time factor.” 1 Pettibon effectively sutures Leonardo’s draftsmanship with the montage sensibility of Eisenstein, though obviously within his own contemporary idiom.
One feels a chronic sense of fatalism in the texts, voices, and imagery throughout, from the arm being injected with a (presumably) illicit substance, to the man with explosives accompanied by the written phrase “Last Word of an Expiring Civilization,” to the surfer whose mastery of an immense wave is eventually qualified by the phrase “Was he a cynic, an enthusiast, or merely an aesthete of rough seas?” Repeater Pencil feels as if it offers the last words of an expiring civilization from a simultaneous cynic, enthusiast, and aesthete of rough seas with its disorienting and disjointed juxtapositions of voices, images, and texts that unfold over time. Though relieved intermittently and occasionally by mundane and even humorous pictures and statements, the overall tone and mood of the work is one of a creeping sense of banal dread that is quite literally embodied in the spoken phrase “thoughts blacken the page, the page blackens the thought.” Repeater Pencil ultimately casts a dark and foreboding mirror on our recent past and present, making use of repetition and discordance to suggest our daily lived experience of distraction, complication, and contingency.
Raymond Pettibon was born in Tucson, Arizona in 1957. He received a degree in economics from UCLA. Exhibitions of Pettibon’s work have been held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Renaissance Society, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Spain, the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, the Haags Gemeentemuseum in the Netherlands, and the Centro d’ Arte Contemporaneo in Malaga, Spain. Awards include the Bucksbaum Award, Wolfgang Hahn Prize from the Ludwig Museum, Koln, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award. Raymond Pettibon currently lives and works in Southern California.
Dominic Molon is Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, where he has curated the major thematic exhibition “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967” (2007), as well as solo exhibitions of Liam Gillick (2009), Wolfgang Tillmans (2006), and Sharon Lockhart (2001). He is currently organizing the major group exhibition, Production Site: The Artist’s Studio Inside-Out, for February 2010. Molon has also contributed to numerous publications including Art Review, Whitewall, Vitamin D: New Perspectives on Drawing; Art on Paper; Contemporary Magazine; Vitamin P: New Perspectives on Painting; Trans; and Tate: the Art Magazine as well as exhibition catalogues for Karen Kilimnik, Elmgreen/Dragset, and Muntean/Rosenblum. He has also presented numerous lectures and moderated panels internationally.