Review of reviews: Art & Music
Exhibit of the week
Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York City, through April 9
A single Raymond Pettibon drawing “can knock you back on your heels,” said Peter Plagens in The Wall Street Journal. Currently, you can see several hundred of them spread across three floors of the New Museum, and though the sprawling show won’t convince anyone that Pettibon is a great draftsman in any traditional sense, it makes “a pretty good case” that the permanently enraged 59-yearold is indeed a major artist. Pettibon, raised in California and a maniacal scribbler since childhood, was creating posters for L.A. punk bands when he first came to notice. His standard method is to pair a startling comics-style image with a snippet of text— a nude woman bearing a switchblade and the markings of a Charles Manson devotee, say, below the declaration “Kansas prepares them for it perfectly.” His unresolved fury grabs you, and he deserves to be rewarded “for simply letting it all rip.”
Most of the time, it’s the “twitchy, out-of- nowhere” inscriptions that lend the work its power, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. A decade ago, Pettibon pulled out drawings he’d made in grade school—of cowboys, baseball players, and TV stars—and added handwritten text that deepened the resonances. Atop a crayoned image of Nazi fighter planes, for example, he dropped this line from Marcel Proust: “They are innocent enough as long as they are regarded as mere toys.” That’s not his only trick, though. Later, he turns the Claymation figure Gumby into an alter ego: an imp in one image, a predator in another. And though Pettibon sometimes takes aim at particular targets, like George W. Bush’s war in Iraq or the rot at the heart of the hippie movement, his work is most effective seen whole—as a steady indictment of American culture across the six decades that he’s been caught in its wave.
I was wrong to have previously dismissed Pettibon as an adolescent provocateur, said Thomas Micchelli in Hyperallergic.com. In reality, “he takes an absurd path to the long view,” repurposing images from comic books, pornography, war photography, and myriad other sources to cast an unflattering light on all of us. Even when he’s savaging a Bush or a Ronald Reagan for stupidity or hypocrisy, he appears most incensed by the death wish the public expresses by empowering leaders who are ripe for such attacks. “In image after image,” his work “explores the fatal human proclivity to manipulate and be manipulated, to play predator and prey, all in the service of the basest psychosexual, violent, and suicidal urges.”
“If ever there were an artist to make a critic feel redundant, it’s Ed Sheeran,” said Harriet Gibsone in TheGuardian.com. With his catchy acoustic pop songs and “everybloke” persona, the 26-year-old British singersongwriter has charmed his way from busking to the top level of pop stardom since dropping his first studio material in 2010. But though no critic could slow the sales of this “slick, potent” new album, it must be said that each lyric and each piece of instrumentation is haunted by “a flagrant sense of scheming.” On the plus side, “this is a set of punchy, melodic, meaningful songs, with verses and choruses in all the right places,” said Neil McCormick in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Once again, Sheeran mixes acoustic guitar with hip-hop vocal stylings and shows “he really knows how to write a beautiful, heartfelt ballad.” Unfortunately, he’s gotten a little too practiced at his trade, achieving a level of polish that erases some of the quirks that made a younger Sheeran “such an endearingly awkward” pop performer.
“Rhiannon Giddens has never been one to sit still,” said Barry Mazor in The Wall Street Journal. A cofounder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a revivalist string band, Giddens has used her second studio album to trace the history of the black experience in America—from the slavery era to today—and does so with a set of songs exhibiting impressive musical range. The opener, about a young mother up for auction in the antebellum South, gets spare acoustic strings; “Better Get It Right the First Time,” about a college-bound young man shot by police, brings in a bank of R&B horns. Nine songs were written or co-written by Giddens, and they prove powerful in their lyrical specificity—in their “vivid portrayal of what the songs’ narrators and subjects were feeling and thinking.” Giddens’ banjo and “gorgeous” voice are through lines on the record, and her sense of urgency is a constant, said Justin Jacobs in Relix magazine. “Take it as a sign that Giddens is on a journey from folk singer to folk firebrand.”
“At first, Drunk is quite disorientating,” said Adam Turner-Heffer in DrownedInSound.com. But the virtuoso bassist Stephen Bruner—aka Thundercat—is generally worth following wherever he goes, and “part of the thrill” of his third studio album is “never really knowing where Bruner is going to take us next.” The 50-minute record packs in 23 tracks, jump-cutting from ’80s synth pop, to bass-shredding jazz fusion, to “gorgeous, heartbreaking” R&B—mixing in plenty of dark humor, plus guests ranging from Kendrick Lamar to Kenny Loggins. The “alternately frustrating and fascinating” result positions Thundercat as a “21stcentury R&B Frank Zappa for the Millennial crowd,” said John Paul in PopMatters.com. Some listeners will be bothered that “Them Changes,” a “wickedly funky” two-year-old track, is surrounded here by so many song sketches and fragments. But the fragments are often fascinating in themselves, and the album stands as “a sonic challenge” from “one of the more unique creative visionaries operating today.” ■