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Homer and Ray 

Illustration as social sculpture

Wednesday, Jun 27 2001

Illustration is a problematic area in the contemporary visual arts. The history of modern art can be seen as an attempt to disable the allegorical impulse, to end Fine Art’s subordination to language. The scorn heaped upon the pre-Raphaelites and late Romantics, on Picasso‘s post-Cubist figuration, on Salvador Dali and the other illusionistic Surrealists, derives from the insistence that a painting that referenced anything outside its own materials -- and, possibly, outside the optical mechanics of the viewer -- was conceptually retarded. Consigned to the netherworld of commercial design for most of the 20th century, illustration nevertheless continually reared its figurative head, most violently through the ironic Trojan horse of Pop Art, and subsequently in the “New Image” painting of the late ’70smid-‘80s (Fischl, Schnabel, Salle, Longo et al.), the parallel “lowbrow” art world of Robert Williams, and, most recently, in the well-marketed uberkitsch of Lisa Yuskavage, Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin. While more accomplished figurative painters mining deeper and more complex narrative veins are shunted to the sidelines, graphic designers whose work is more conceptually innovative and finely crafted than their art-world counterparts’ see shoddy copies of their ideas of the previous year touted as the next big thing. But there are exceptions.

Hermosa Beach homeboy Raymond Pettibon first came to prominence around the same time the New Imagists were spearheading the ‘80s return of figurative painting that remains indelibly linked to the excesses of Reaganomics. Pettibon’s milieu (the South Bay hardcore-punk scene founded largely by his brother Greg Ginn, lead guitarist of Black Flag and founder of SST Records), while fueled by the same influx of alkaloids, had considerably more cultural and political cachet (on my planet anyway). Providing the scene with a trademark graphic style almost as identifiable as Jamie Reid‘s ransom notes for the Sex Pistols, Pettibon’s plummeting hippies, psycho cops and desperate suburbanites, with their cryptic, fragmentary and darkly hilarious captions, adorned fliers and record sleeves for many of the West Coast‘s pre-eminent alternative musicians, and his plethora of Xeroxed-’n‘-stapled zines, issued by SST’s publishing wing, were a bridge between the stylistically limited punk fanzines of the late ‘70s and early ’80s, and the explosion of the self-publishing subculture in the ‘90s.

“The Book Show,” currently on display at Santa Monica Museum of Art, focuses on this body of work, incorporating original editions of Tripping Corpse and Pettibon’s other small-run ‘80s publications; a wall of original art from the period, as well as more recent portfolio editions; similarly lo-fi excursions into narrative filmmaking; and some incongruous examples of his (elsewhere successful) wall-paintings. While it’s still somehow extra hard standing around reading art, the emphasis on Pettibon‘s subcultural social engagement and the history of publishing adds a narrative dimension that is buried or lost in much of his art-world presentation.

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After solo shows at LAICA and LACE, and after profoundly influencing Mike Kelley’s graphic style, Pettibon officially entered the L.A. art-star echelon with his inclusion in MOCA‘s “Helter-Skelter” exhibition. People began trainspotting Pettibon’s literary references and comparing him to William Blake. While the dissonance between his imagery and verbiage grew increasingly complex, and his graphic facility grew more rough-hewn and improvisational, the actual drawings became pristine and archival, displayed on gallery and museum walls in token slacker abundance. But Pettibon‘s work is at its most convincing and pleasurable when framed by the history of its entry into Fine Art importance via unexpected cultural channels, and by its original format -- mass-produced, sequential, idiosyncratically distributed, and pointing more directly to the history of experimental narrative literature (particularly the delirious drawn writings of beatnik Kenneth Patchen) and popular graphic art (including comics and commercial illustration) than any museum catalogue could. Except maybe the newly published The Books 1978--1998, which reprints 30 of the original zines in their original format and in chronological order, along with two previously unpublished booklets and a rambling foreword by exhibition curator Roberto Ohrt.

In response to the apparently hardwired human need for storytelling, the 20th-century art-world pendulum swung repeatedly between abstinence and embrace. Pettibon was one of several L.A. artists (along with Kelley, Jeffrey Vallance, Jim Shaw, Alexis Smith and Ed Ruscha) to tread an ambivalent middle line, purposefully disrupting the mechanisms of relationship between text and image. Looking at his zines places him at least as strongly in a geographically indeterminate lineage that includes Harvey Kurtzman, Carl Barks, Jack Chick, New Yorker cartoonists, Tijuana bibles and anonymous pulp illustrators.

In “Winslow Homer and the Critics,” at LACMA, the painter that begat both Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollock offers, on first read, a more straight-up brand of narrative. Homer, who began his career as a graphic illustrator for newspapers and magazines, moved from Boston to New York, the center of U.S. publishing, and gained renown for his reportorial renderings of army life during the Civil War. Paintings depicting similar themes were his entree to New York’s art establishment, just as the cry went up for a distinctively American artistic voice on a par with European cultural accomplishments. Homer‘s glowing, experimental depictions of a vanishing agrarian idyll seem in retrospect to have been just the ticket. In fact, America took some convincing.

One of the most striking qualities to the contemporary eye is Homer’s naturalism, and the absence of nostalgia or sentimentality of any sort in his depiction of ex-slaves and farmers, giving the paintings an air of Yankee candor and individualism. But Homer‘s eye is closer to Manet than to Grandma Moses -- his alteration of the imagery in works like 1876’s The Watermelon Boys and Answering the Horn (not to mention his juggling of the aesthetic demands of the public, collectors, critics and his own vision) suggests a keen awareness and careful manipulation of the subtleties and limits of pictorial communication. Homer‘s perennial critical clashes over the unintelligibility of his paintings -- due to a flattening of perspective, distortion of figures and loose brushwork -- mark him as a proto-Modernist, constantly pushing, in a elegantly diplomatic way, to expand America’s ability to understand abstraction and the subjectivity of human experience.

The exhibition itself adds even more narrative complexity to Homer‘s oeuvre. The framing of the show in terms of contemporaneous critical reactions (pithy examples are included with most of the paintings here) draws the narrative of Homer’s gradual acceptance as a bona fide American master to the surface. Homer‘s negotiation of the social demand for a representative of a nationalist aesthetic in the era of the floundering Reconstruction and the American Centennial is made a much richer and more complex story, and a masterwork of social sculpture. Having achieved his goal, the never-garrulous Homer retreated to Prouts Neck, Maine, to paint the intense Japanese-influenced seascapes that solidified his reputation as one of America’s first world-class homegrown artistes.

Where Pettibon‘s early book works satisfy our hunger for picture-stories while throwing a post-modern monkey wrench in the gears of a fatally corrupted semiology, Homer’s life and career follow a paradigmatic modernist dynamic, ambitious and progressive, charting a journey from illustrative documentary narration to the chronicling of an archetypally charged, visually abstract inner narrative. “Winslow Homer and the Critics” presents the middle slice of this overarching narrative, a period in which Homer created his most popular and populist imagery, visually exposed America to Modernist ideas, and set the course for both American painting and commercial illustration for half the coming century.

Pettibon‘s my blackouts from console, heal, or depict, August 1984

  • Illustration as social sculpture

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