JULY/AUGUST 2003

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In Defense of Performance Art
A foremost practitioner explains his métier
By Guillermo Gómez-Peña

About the Light

The Uncomfortable Worlds of Gregory Crewdson and
Raymond Pettibon

by Paul Allen Anderson

„As artists we walk around with a single story to tell,š the photographer Gregory Crewdson once proposed, perhaps a little too forthrightly. There is always „some kind of central narrative. And I think the struggle is to attempt to reinvent that story over and over again in different forms...š Crewdson, for example, is not shy about his work's psychological probing being grounded in his father's profession as a psychoanalyst in Brooklyn. Twilight (Abrams, 2002), the book of reproductions that accompanies the 2002 shows of Crewdson's recent large format (48 by 60 inches) exhibition prints, is dedicated to Dr. Frank Crewdson, presumably a therapist committed to illuminating the crepuscular world of his patients‚ unconsciouses.

The intricately staged suburban images in Twilight are not necessarily set at the hour of nightfall, but rather at the hour of therapy in upstate New York. Often manifesting the characters‚ condition of sleepwalking or uncanny automatism, the highly cinematic pictures share the „central narrativeš of Crewdson‚s unearthly suburbs. In particular, one imagines many of the adult characters noting to themselves or their therapists that „not only is my life all wrong, it‚s not even mine.š Civilization, or at least Crewdson‚s meticulous, beautifully lit rendering of a certain middle-class American suburban slice of it, is largely a drag. This world's repressed adults look ill at ease with one another while their healthy-looking children appear withdrawn and isolated. Taken as a whole, the pictures in Twilight depict the hinge between the empty routines of their days and nights and the puzzlingly familiar dreamworlds marked by floral monoliths and inexplicable beams of light. The regressive impulse captured in the uncanny, Freud wrote, „is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.š One imagines John Cheever‚s tight-lipped suburbanites suffering a decline in their class status and salving their ennui in the kitschy neo-pastoral dreams captured by Steven Spielberg‚s blockbuster fantasies E.T: The Extraterrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Typical outdoor dream scenes in Twilight include expressionless neighborhood youths gently tending a monolith of flowers in the middle of the street or younger children observing their school bus turned on its side and smoking. Older characters dream more desperately: a man in underwear has crashed his car and fled by foot up a beanstalk to paradise, or at least another zip code. Crewdson‚s evening images offer assorted characters transfixed by mysterious rays shining from the heavens, from a house‚s foundation or from backyard outbuildings. In a benevolent echo of an early scene from Spielberg‚s Poltergeist, a young girl stares at the light and the colorful butterflies emanating mysteriously from a toolshed. The pastoral fantasies of regression in Twilight imply a dream of freedom from deracinated authority figures, internal (in the case of Crewdson‚s repressed, ashamed adults) or external (in the case of his children). The spaceships of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we recall, project mysterious spotlights upon selected humans below: at first, the light is terrifying and physically damaging. By the film‚s end, however, the Mothership's warm bath of light enshrouds a crew of pint-sized extraterrestrials as benign as the Christ-like lost lamb of E.T. The child-like aliens offer to take Richard Dreyfuss back to their gentle world as a visitor. Crewdson constructs iconic images of suburban life that hope to be full of narrative possibility. Too often, however, the pictures retrace the same claustrophobic notes of familial tension and psychic determination with slight variations of the dreamworld reaching beyond.

Raymond Pettibon, No Title (I Grew Up...), 1985, pen and ink on paper, 12 by 9 inches (all photos courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles).

The images and texts in Phaidon‚s Raymond Pettibon (2001) from their Contemporary Artists series of large-format paperbacks promise one kind of antidote to Twilight's cinematic claustrophobia and thematic legibility. While Crewdson stages meticulous scenes full of narrative possibilities but ultimately powered by the same „central narrative,š the survey in Raymond Pettibon does not even try to exert narrative control over Pettibon‚s vast output from the past few decades, most especially of drawings. These works number in the thousands, and the ones sampled here demonstrate an exotically prolific artist eagerly throwing narrative coherence into a centrifuge. Similarly, his gallery and museum exhibitions can stage what seems to be a riot of drawings and huge wall paintings. One imagines Pettibon following the advice on montage given by Sergei Eisenstein and excerpted in the fascinating Raymond Pettibon: A Reader (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1998). Eisenstein ranks there as a writer who engages Pettibon „to be a part of their life.š „Let the dark, gloomy air,„ Eisenstein wrote, šbe seen beaten by the rush of opposing winds wreathed in perpetual rain mingled with hail, and bearing hither and thither a vast network of the torn branches of trees mixed together with an infinite number of leaves.š Pettibon‚s nearly infinite number of drawings amount to very collectible and expensive leaves.

Pettibon came to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s for his iconic graphic designs for California‚s SST record label (started by the punk band Black Flag). His subjects since then, however, have ranged widely. „Everyone wants to talk about rock ‚n‚ roll,š he notes in an interview with Dennis Cooper. "I‚ll do that if I don‚t have to bring my art into it. It just shows the obsession that society has with rock music and rock culture, nowhere more so than in art.š In response to those restrictive obsessions, Raymond Pettibon surveys a major artist whose art fuses a disaffected noir vision of the Sixties counterculture and post-Sixties America to a literary aesthete's old-fashioned Bildung and bibliophilia.

Raymond Pettibon, Untitled (Self Portrait on LSD), 1990, pen and ink on paper, 8 by 11 inches.

Pettibon‚s ink drawings don't illustrate or externalize states of tension and narrative ambiguity so much as capture the signature acts or motivations of his countless characters. Sparks fly when the anarchic punk detachment of a „blank generationš of California hardcore rubs against hand-lettered texts suggesting Wildean cool and literary refinement. In an informative essay for the volume, Robert Storr approaches the antinomies of Pettibon‚s wayward art through the artist‚s biography as a white male Californian born in 1957. „Pettibon is the exemplary artist of the morning after, the picture-making poet of disasters that stalk abandon who nevertheless wants more than anything to disappear into his imagination.š Since the mid-1980s, the unparalleled graphic poet of post-Sixties disaster and punk attitudeųwhom the critic Benjamin Buchloh has applauded for avant-gardist images of negation through „identificatory realismšųhas taken up a far broader variety of moods and topics.

Raymond Pettibon, No Title (He had seen as much), 1998, pen and ink on paper, 16 by 22 inches.

Some of Twilight's more effective pictures reach for enchantment through the glow of a mysterious, otherworldly light suggestive of fantastical transfiguration and pastoral regression. Pettibon's illumination, though, is less kind. His 1981 drawing Untitled (You Didn‚t Love) depicts a glare from Elvis‚s crucified body: the accompanying text reads „You Didn‚t Love Him Enough!š Despite the air of punk sacrilege, the image and text both suggest a ironic light of judgment and self-judgment in the act of unmasking. Similarly, Untitled (He had seen) (1988) captures the tragic side of Superman‚s x-ray vision. The muscular hero stands in costume next to a naked Superwoman. Beside the golden beams shooting toward the sky from these heroes‚ eyes Pettibon writes, „He had seen as much as he‚d wanted of real life∑. He couldn‚t stop staring through everything as if he were a god, or were blind.š In the years since, some of Pettibon‚s largest images have depicted solitary surfers, baseball players and other white men on the American scene who have dreamt of self-contained athletic asceticism and mastery. The aesthete is not as isolated as he thinks.

PAUL ALLEN ANDERSON is assistant professor of American culture and African American Studies at the University of Michigan, and author of Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought (Duke U.P., 2001).

 

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