For half of last century, from 1939 to 1991, Estonia was under three successive occupations. First, the Soviet-German nonaggression pact handed Estonia and its fellow Baltic States, Latvia and Lithuania, to Russia as part of their “spheres of interest” land distribution. Then, Hitler sold out Stalin in the summer of ’41 by invading Russia and the Baltics fell to the Nazis. After the war, Estonia was merged into the USSR.
During the occupation, Estonia lost one-third of its population—around a half million people—to murder, execution, war, starvation, the Holocaust, POW/refugee camps, or the Gulags. These staggering numbers are shared by Estonia’s fellow Baltic states. The small region remains among the most collectively terrorized places in modern history.
One of the men lost, Otto Peters, was the uncle of artist Raymond Pettibon. Peters was conscripted by the Germans to fight the Red Army in WWII. Stalin awarded him with an 11-year stint in a Gulag. Otto’s sister left for America, where she gave birth to Raymond in 1957. He was raised in suburban Los Angeles and now lives and works in Venice Beach and New York. This spring, Pettibon dedicated a show to his uncle at the KUMU Art Museum in Estonia’s capital Tallinn.
Years ago, Alistair Hicks—a curator, writer, and Deutsche Bank art advisor—asked Pettibon to do a show in Estonia. When Pettibon finally came to Tallinn in 2014 to visit his remaining relatives, he agreed to work with Hicks upon seeing the KUMU space. KUMU is located outside Tallinn’s center, a curved glass and concrete sliver monolith cut into a hillside—a typecast post-Bilbao Euro-contemporary masterpiece by architect Pekka Juhani Vapaavuori.
Working with Hicks and KUMU curator Eha Komissarov, Pettibon corresponded for months to conceptualize the show. “He was really communicative and had his own views about the Baltics political context,” Komissarov explained in an email. “Since he constantly criticizes the U.S. government, he was very unsure about NATO being in Estonia, but agreed that Russia could be a real danger to our country.”
Pettibon created over a dozen works with an Estonian theme specifically for the KUMU show. Politics dominate. “They show the tensions in a world that still does not know how to live in a depolarized world,” Hicks said in a statement. Some works are drawn straight on the wall—one of these states that Estonians should send the Bible back to Germany and return to their pre-Christian roots.
Ironically, the show, which is titled “Raymond Pettibon: Home and Away,” is sponsored by the United States government. The show takes up four asymmetrical rooms on the museum’s top floor. Pettibon’s main vision here is focused on the legacy of totalitarianism in the East converging with the West’s imperial foreign policy, something he’s railed against on his bizarre Twitter account:
Balts co-optd into US Imperialism.Lithuanians a resort 4 US torture.Lead by US xpertsLOL carpetbaggers.NATO Balt deaths on Afghan soil.Shame
No one’s more anti-Communist than me.No one’s more anti-American.Balts you don’t have to choose side w/Soviet Ally
Pettibon graduated from UCLA in ’79 with a degree in economics. He started his career in the ’80s designing record covers and fliers for the band Black Flag, as well as other groups in the anti-Reagan Los Angeles hardcore scene, using simple black-and-white drawings and text. In the ’90s, he introduced color illustrations. At KUMU, his wild variety of themes are on view: waves, war, weirdness, professional wrestling, politics, pussy, penises, punk, pop, hippies, trains, tits, baseball, basketball, beachballs, babes, market economics, nukes, nerds, torture, Obama/Cheney/Bush, flowers…
The Baltic States rarely see shows by the top American contemporary artists, and Pettibon’s work, which often focuses on double-entendre text and free associative word jumbles, is “not so easy to understand in a non-English language space,” as Komissarov explained. Each work is helped along by an Estonian translation.
But Estonia’s high regard for literature provides a rather welcoming backdrop for Pettibon. Despite being a small country, Estonia has outsized book lust, with large domestic and foreign translation industries. One of the country’s biggest cultural coups in recent years was the release of Finnish-Estonian novelist Sofi Oksanen’s When the Doves Disappeared. Her books share a theme with Pettibon, addressing political oppression. Roughly five percent of the populations of both Estonia and Finland own a copy of When the Doves Disappeared.
“We know about British colonialism. Russian colonialism is not so well known,” Oksanen explained to the Guardian last spring. Pettibon, who has referred to his work in the past as “reportage,” shares this sentiment in his KUMU exhibition’s closing statement: a series of portraits of Stalin, each carrying the ominous reminder of the imprisonment of the artist’s family history.