Penning Political Presumptions

Subjective entities and individuals publicly broadcast the objective truth—honest, altered, and falsified. Often accessed through the Internet, these bi-partisan accounts of global and domestic happenings shape public opinion. At times they promote political unity, empowering the masses, while at others they pedal hypocrisy, fueling dissenting factions.

In the quest to uncover the objectivity truth, one is faced with a myriad of conflicting, slanted accounts. Due to an oversaturation in media reporting, it has become increasingly difficult to discern the factuality of our modern reality. Yet, far from negative, this increase in reporting illuminates the body politics’ multifaceted manner of thinking. Accessible online and printed outlets of communication invite widespread participation in the political dialogue. Artists are instrumental in this dialogue, subjecting elected officials to an unprecedented level of scrutiny by rendering uncensored accounts of corruption and miscalculation. Pigment has the staying power of shrapnel; it indelibly marks the inflicted observer, searing into his consciousness.

Chronicling the vast cultural shifts in America, Raymond Pettibon (b. 1957), via means of pen and paintbrush, has captured the collapse of the American counterculture into the factious political present. A wordsmith, documentarian, artist, and satirist, Pettibon has achieved international recognition for rendering universal critiques in a deeply personal manner. His witty, widely disseminated attacks on political figures—Reagan, Bush, Kennedy, and more recently Trump—magnify the public’s murmured complaints. Juxtaposing borrowed text with both original and found drawing, Pettibon creates in response to the present geo-political landscape.

Complicating interpretation, Pettibon’s works are often oblique references; they demand the viewer’s complete engagement; they must be textually decoded. Yet, this process of decipherment may not lead to greater clarity. Alas, the greater intention, which the viewer ardently seeks to read into the work, may remain an enigma. However, it is the inherent contradictions, the gaps in concrete meaning, in Pettibon’s art that visually proclaim the absurdity of American culture and politics since 1960. The stylistic tropes and phrases Pettibon employs express the body politics’ confused, despairing response to the tribulations of America since 1960: America’s shifting values, elected politicians’ personal blunders, and military miscalculations.

Displaying over 800 of Pettibon’s zines, sketchbooks, self-portraits, political satires, and surf scenes, the New Museum has devoted three floors to an artist retrospective. The exhibition, “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” which, remarkably, is the artist’s first retrospective in New York, can be viewed until April 9, 2017.

Image: Raymond Pettibon, No Title, (I spent ayll…), 2016.

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The Compulsion to Collect

To be termed a keeper—a hoarder—one typically possesses obsessive tendencies. Often associated with mania, keepers are tied to objects of their affection, unable to let go. Struck by uncanny urges to collect, to document or, in the most extreme cases, to prophesize, keepers record their feelings in tangible forms. These artifacts—beautiful and strange—hold the tumultuous histories of their owners and/or creators. The New Museum’s most recent exhibition, “The Keeper” is dedicated to the peoples and products preserved. As stated by its curators, the exhibit records the human “impulse to save both the most precious and the apparently valueless.” It presents all ephemera as bonafide artistic creations.

On view at the New Museum until the 25th of September, the exhibition sets out to document the impulses behind artistic creation. Offering a full array of intriguing, absurd and spectacular objects, “The Keeper” challenges spectators to see each object for its artistic merit. Ranging from Ydessa Hendeles Partners, an extension of The Teddy Bear Project (2002), to Shinro Ohtake’s collaged scrapbooks to Ye Jinglu’s yearly formal portrait to Henrik Olesen’s Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/ or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c. 1300-1870 (2007), “The Keeper” cannot be criticized for its diversity in representation. The show bridges many mediums, exhibiting works of photography, sculpture, painting, embroidery and collage, among others.

Aptly titled, “The Keeper” is a beautifully confusing experience. At times I was rendered quiet, enraptured by the universality of an individual object. While at others I was left lost, deciphering the Magnus Opus of Henrik Olesen with little supplementary text. The exhibition labels, well wrought and exceedingly thought provoking, provided little help for casual visitors. Steeped with highbrow vocabulary and complex methodological concepts, the labels were passed over altogether by many visitors.

Even with such failings, “The Keeper” deserves widespread praise for bringing to light the compulsion of collecting. The desire to keep elements of the past exists within all of us.  Sharing this human tendency, both laymen and creatives could relate to the seemingly un-relatable collection of oddities.