I first encountered the work of Alhambra native Richard Pettibone in what has to be the most perfectly ironic context — as reproductions as historical footnotes in books and articles about Pop Art. The irony derives from the fact that Pettibone’s signal 1960s works consisted of meticulously crafted small-scale copies of works by contemporary artists, including Warhol and Lichtenstein. The sizes of these pieces were actually based on reproductions Pettibone culled from reviews in Artforum magazine. Less amusingly, Pettibone’s relegation to the margins of Pop Art history illustrates both the dumbed-downness with which Pop has been historically neutralized and the fate of any artist who refuses to be comfortably categorized.

In Pettibone’s case, though, history has gradually been catching up with him. During the heyday of ’80s appropriation art, he was recognized as the forebear of postmodern copycats like Sherrie Levine or Mike Bidlo, though none of the new breed displayed the same craft, passion or idiosyncratic vision. Now, with an enormous (so to speak) retrospective on view at the Laguna Art Museum, Pettibone appears ripe for reassessment as an artist on par with other unclassifiable smart-ass West Coast conceptualists such as Ed Ruscha and Bruce Naumann, albeit one whose entire oeuvre could probably fit into a couple of suitcases.

Co-curated by local wingnut enthusiast Michael Duncan and Ian Berry of the Tang Museum at Skidmore College in upstate New York (where the exhibit ran in the fall of ’05), “Richard Pettibone: A Retrospective” consists of more than 200 individual artworks, spanning from 1963 to 2004. The bulk of the show is dedicated to Pettibone’s dollhouse modernism, which began as a one-off joke, copying a Lichtenstein in defiance of expectations that he develop an original visual style. Something in the gesture clicked, though.

As a student at Otis, Pettibone had seen Warhol’s legendary soup-can show at Ferus Gallery and Duchamp’s equally influential retrospective at the Pasadena Museum, which included his Boîte-en-Valise, a miniaturized greatest-hits collection containing reproductions of his paintings, assemblages and ready-mades. By the following year, Pettibone had churned out scores of immaculate, actual-size re-reproductions combining acrylic painting with a variety of cunning printing techniques — silk-screening Lichtenstein’s hand-painted mimicry of commercial offset Benday dot patterns, for example. After showing a stack of 85 Warhols to Warhol, he was introduced to an intrigued Leo Castelli, and soon found himself back home, commissioned to fill Ferus with copies of works from six Los Angeles collections.

One of Pettibone’s mass copyings — the Weisman Collection — is included here in its entirety. Alongside the expected Lichtenstein comic panels and Warhol Flowers are some unlikely fellow travelers, including Abstract Expressionist stalwarts like Rothko, Newman and Still. Mounted between freestanding sheets of Plexiglas, the grouping has the feel of an archaeological diorama depicting a seismic upheaval in the art-world landscape, effectively absorbing the previous generation’s heroic self-importance into the cooler agendas of the ’60s. The Plexi presentation also affords viewers the opportunity to examine the absurdly accurate stretcher bar structures on which Pettibone — a lifelong model hobbyist — stretches his tiny canvases.

It is this willingness to take what was initially a one-liner to its logical extremes — both in the intricate production details that might never have seen the light of day and in the devotion of over four decades to exploring its inexhaustible variations — that most clearly situates Pettibone’s project among the ranks of the great deadpan pranks of West Coast conceptual art. The systematic, deeply humorous, relentlessly contrary exploration of craft, value, authorial originality, scale and the complex semiotics of recombinant mimicry is intellectually equal to any contemporary confrontation with the legacy of modernism. What is most surprising, though, is the tremendous warmth and sincerity the work exudes.

It’s apparent when confronting the cumulative ranks of Lilliputian Warhols, Duchamps, Stellas, Brancusis, et al., that the central underlying impulse is one of homage — albeit refracted through a self-reflexive postmodern prism. Where Pettibone’s emotional sincerity suddenly becomes unvarnished is in the early ’70s, with a group of works that coincide with his move to Charlotteville, New York (where he still lives), and the breakup of his first marriage. Having investigated the syntactical implications of his vocabulary in a series of virtuosic monstrosities that clustered as many as 35 copied artworks into a single sprawling miniature, the artist pulled an abrupt about-face.

Intrigued by the then-current (now ripe for rediscovery) genre of photorealist painting, Pettibone began producing meticulous actual-size oil paintings of his personal family snapshots, creating a small but singular (and of course contrary) riposte to the clinical detachment of the better-known photorealists. He could have spent years exploring this intimate niche, but the work quickly mutated to encompass post cards (including an exquisite Pet Sounds–era pinup of Brian Wilson) and snapshots of glassware, Shaker furniture, Ferraris and — dovetailing elegantly with his earlier oeuvre — paintings hanging in museum and gallery spaces.

Further metamorphoses wandered into less-coherent conflations of fashion photography and squiggly art marks, followed by some extremely funny text pieces, Ezra Pound book-jacket designs, Picasso engravings, X-rays of Mondrian paintings, and sculptures of Brancusi columns perched on Shaker furniture. He has recently revisited his twin inspirations Duchamp and Warhol. One of the great pleasures afforded by seeing this work collected in one space is following one artist’s uninhibited intellectual curiosity about art history and his place in it. Pettibone’s willful perversity and exhaustive catalogical impulses may be initially off-putting, but there’s always an unaffected human punch line waiting at the end — as with the very last work in the exhibition, which follows a wallful of incremental variations on Duchamp’s urinal ready-made and Bride painting. In a surprise return to the autobiographical photorealism of the ’70s, it lavishes the artist’s considerable skills, labor and attention in the depiction of the most mundane reality — as captured in its utilitarian title Harold Vroman plowing my driveway, Dec 26, 2002. The guy may not have completely figured out what art is yet, but he knows what he likes.

In a brilliant curatorial decision (or remarkable serendipity), the large central gallery at LAM is given over to a survey of recent work by L.A. figurative painter F. Scott Hess, whose series The Seven Laughters of God — the centerpiece of the show — grapples with many of the same philosophical and historical issues as Pettibone’s work, particularly the questions of originality and authenticity and the difficulty of finding one’s place in contemporary art’s chaotic historical landscape. Hess’ approach is allegorical and ambiguously satirical, with the mythological potency of image-making seeming to drain away over the course of his artist-protagonist’s successful navigation of the art world. The complexities of his metaphorical journey are too elaborate to unravel here — besides, Donald Kuspit and Hess himself do a fine job in the accompanying catalog. But keep your eye on the mockingbird, harbinger of creative grace and mimicry — its efforts to awaken the hero appear ultimately futile. In the final canvas, with the now-successful neo-Pop sellout glad-handing collectors and critics, the bird is glimpsed in a background painting, being shot from the sky. But on closer inspection, the smart-ass polyglot is pulling a Bugs Bunny, exclaiming, “Oh Supercop! You slay me! No, really, no kidding, it hurts. I’m dyin here, really!” Who exactly is getting the last laugh remains up in the air. As it should be.

Richard Pettibone: A Retrospective and F. Scott Hess: The Seven Laughters of God and Other Paintings | Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach | Through May 28

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