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Pettibon's results still seem to overpower

October 10, 2003|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

There's little in Raymond Pettibon's newest exhibition at Regen Projects -- his fifth in a decade with the gallery -- that's likely to surprise those already familiar with his work. International as the scope of his career has become in the 20-some years since he began designing record covers for local punk bands, his signature style has hardly changed. The loose, full-bodied drawing; the sprawling text; the dark humor and deceptively literary sensibility -- these defining elements are unmistakable and as prevalent as ever.

It's tempting, given this consistency, to question the viability of the idiom. Is Pettibon covering new territory here, or is he just recycling previously successful combinations?

Has his technique undergone continual refinement, or did it stall somewhere along the way?

Is the spirit of the work still vibrant, or has it been dampened by the weight of high price tags?

In the face of the drawings themselves, however, these questions drift out of the mind -- overpowered, no doubt, by the sweeping energy of the work's lines, the din of its weird prose or the sheer spectacle of its substantial quantity. Whether or not the material is new, it remains exceptionally engaging. Dip into the stream of drawings that line the four adjacent walls of the gallery and you'll find yourself quickly swept into the flow -- skimming from one image to another over tangled thickets of text.

There's no underlying order to the work, no symbolism to decode or narrative to unravel. Its epiphanies, rather, lie in periodic eruptions of extraordinary if often enigmatic eloquence.

In one drawing, a man stands before a bucket that is bursting with flames, alongside a curiously apocalyptic explanation: "The fires followed him from Bakersfield, and for two weeks the world followed the fire. As one town burned down, another got lit, and the story would change too, with new ground to cover."

Another image, of a single tire, offers a poignant glimpse of redemption: "When I'd just realized that I had been driving with a flat tire for 150,000 miles and never noticed it, a feeling of awe and elation came over me. I felt like I'd cheated the tire company and been given a new life, all at one recall. As if the universe had come calling with all my past credit cards -- lost, stolen, or never sent for -- saying, all forgiven."

The image of a crucifix floating in clouds of smoke accompanies the poetic claim, "From now on he would lend, just like that, to mortal life its chief chasm," while an image of Gumby reminds us that "Life ceases to be either simple or innocent from the moment even one book does appeal to a critical sense."

Here Pettibon appears to be speaking from experience. The life he reflects in the body of his work -- not necessarily his own, but the life of society, of the world -- is neither simple nor innocent. But the work itself is all the better for it.

Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive, West Hollywood, (310) 276-5424, through Oct. 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Giving science a human touch

Beverly Rayner's "DNA Samples -- Specimen Group #7," which consists of 50 small glass vials mounted in even rows in a plain wooden display case, looks like something you'd find in an antiquated laboratory or natural history museum. Rather than presenting some organic substance, however, the vials contain tiny photographs of human figures -- one per container.

This substitution of a photographic trace for a genetic one occurs frequently in Rayner's delicately engrossing exhibition at Couturier Gallery, raising compelling questions about the emotional undercurrent of popular scientific narratives. In a piece called "Clone Incubator," faces appear in several test-tube-shaped objects that hang like cocoons beneath a warm light bulb. In "Recombinant Gene Pools," images of families float in wax-filled bowls like mold samples in petri dishes.

There is an intrinsic pathos to the photographs, most of which are old, anonymous family snapshots. Rather than relying on this quality to carry the work, however, Rayner weaves it in as one of many layers, deftly manipulating the effect of the images with sensual materials like wax, velvet, leather, vellum, glass and iron.

One result is that the people in the photographs feel always just out of reach. In the works mentioned above, they're too small to identify clearly or to appreciate as individuals. In others, they're extremely faint, or else veiled by wax, paint, a screen or some other material.

The show's most striking (and, incidentally, simplest) series of works, three large photographs -- each depicting the head of a swimmer bobbing in a body of water -- are bathed in an extraordinarily vivid cobalt tint, which seems to exaggerate both their distance and their vulnerability.

Couturier Gallery, 166 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 933-5557, through Saturday.


Experiment with photographic style

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