Irving Petlin at Kent Gallery

Irving Petlin, Gaza/Guernica (2009), oil on linen, 78″ x 108″; courtesy Kent Gallery, LLC

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The centerpiece of Irving Petlin’s exhibition of paintings and drawings at Kent Gallery is The Entry of Christ into Washington (2005), a tripartite canvas of about five by twelve feet. It’s an homage, of sorts, to Belgian painter James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, one of the more quizzical masterpieces of early modernist painting. But precedent here is a jumping-off point less for artistic purposes than for political vitriol. Mr. Petlin is pissed off.

The Entry of Christ into Washington is a panoramic view of hell as imagined by a foe of the Bush administration. As such, it trucks in those received grievances that drive the left to indignation and, sometimes, self-sabotage. Mr. Petlin’s apocalyptic picture directs its ire at predictable targets: Arab potentates, Exxon oil fields, the American flag, the Capitol building and banners that read “Irak Redux,” “Abu Ghraib,” “Yale,” “Texas” and “Dystopia USA.” All are delineated in the artist’s telltale style—a sketchy composite of drawing and painting that veers assuredly between grubby and ethereal.

The key to understanding Mr. Petlin’s worth as an artist can only partly be gleaned from the intensity of his diatribe. It helps to go beyond the immediate purview of the Kent exhibition, with its pictures of bombings and destruction along the banks of the Tigris and the outskirts of New York City.

Tucked away by the reception desk, there’s a pastel drawing by Mr. Petlin from 1986 titled Songs for Sarah. It’s not much really. The page has hardly been touched; the imagery and intent are ambiguous. There’s a desert vista, a stone wall, seven figures (one may be a bird) dotting the landscape, a stippled whale surfacing from the sand, a building, an acidic orange haze and an unexpectedly bucolic field of blue topping it all off. Throughout, Mr. Petlin displays a casual virtuosity. His approach to drawing is to the point, yet gentle in its stylistic wanderings. Songs for Sarah threatens to disappear even as it comes into focus. It has the fleeting absurdity of a half-remembered dream.

Irving Petlin, The Stolen Blessing (1986), oil on canvas, 56″ x 93″; courtesy Kent Gallery, LLC

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The ambiguity filters through to his distinctive brand of agitprop and complicates it. Unlike his friend and fellow artist, Leon Golub, in whose memory the painting Infantry (2004-5) is dedicated, Mr. Petlin doesn’t talk down to the audience. He trusts viewers to bring their own emotional and political intelligence to the table. Dialogue, not dogma, is the goal. Mr. Petlin can admit to different points of view, even if he finds them wrongheaded or despicable. There’s a generosity of spirit lurking in his scabrousness.

As a result, the paintings and drawings gain in authority. At the very least, they encourage the long look. A Petlin retrospective is set to open at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the spring of 2008, providing a welcome opportunity to gauge his contribution to the culture. In the meantime, the Kent show provides a tantalizingly imperfect glimpse of one man’s singular vision.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 29, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

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