american pastimes

words: piotr orlov

art: raymond pettibon

Raymond Pettibon is into sports. And comics. And advertising. And pretty much any other American-made, mass-produced, pulp-culture distraction that took root in the United States over the course of the postwar years. This is the creative oxygen of Pettibon’s work, a visual vocabulary he uses to make sense of the world he lives in. As incessantly as his country fulfills a never-ending need for pop product, Pettibon is always drawing. 

Around the time of his first career survey, in 1999 at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the local curator and gallerist Paul Schimmel said that Pettibon’s “work literally pours out of him.” It is a huge reason why Pettibon, who for a long time was regarded as an outsider, a man born from the world of ’80s DIY punk zines and flyers, is now seen as one of contemporary American art’s standard-bearers, exhibiting at biennials and the best museums around the globe.

Though Schimmel has called him “an absolute natural,” neither the words nor the images that make up Pettibon’s pieces are his own. His subjects are quotes and reproductions and appropriations of books, magazines, television and film stills, pictures and illustrations, all material sourced from a personal archive that Pettibon has PETRA2057 0000consumed and internalized, revisiting again and again. Over the course of his career, he’s treated this more as a job than a creative profession. Speaking to the art critic Hunter Drohojowska in the Los Angeles Times in 1991, he said, “I’m not in this to be an artist, to have an artist’s life and be in the art scene. I’m in it to work, and there is a distinction there.” It is an ethos reinforced by the sheer volume of his output. 

The images are familiar. There are photos of baseball immortals following through swings while wearing the loose uniforms favored by Eisenhower-era players. There is the character of Vavoom from the old Felix the Cat cartoons, roaring on a mountaintop. There are huge waves and surfers and the trappings of surf culture, a subject that he’s been drawing in one form or another for 30 years (and which have recently been compiled into a stand-alone book titled Surfers: 1985–2015). These are only a few of his tropes, produced in an idiosyncratic illustrational style that’s heavy on thick lines of black ink and white space, and often thin on color. Despite the fact that some of these visuals recur again and again, the meaning of each painting is of its moment, reinforced by the written epigrams he scribbles along the margins—set years apart, the same image can carry different feelings and purpose. 

The surf paintings, for instance, embody a universe both intensely personal and physical—Pettibon grew up in Hermosa Beach, a town that boasts the motto, “The Best Little Beach City”—yet those works are also abstract and philosophical. There’s an early black-and-white painting of a rider in the pipeline, whose title (“Are your motives pure?”) could be either a Zen meditation or the creative credo of the LA punk scene of which Pettibon was an integral part. In a piece that depicts two surfers being wiped out by that same enormous wave, the swells are his muse (“For life to draw, this reservoir to draw upon. To be wiped off the face of the Earth, not without a picture first”). A Reagan-era depiction of a female surfer and two dark figures, drawn in marker, observing a mushroom cloud offshore, is as environmental as it is political, the words reflecting Newton’s Law that “For every action there is an equal and opposite chain reaction in store.” Yet another, a watercolor-and-ink recreation of the familiar scene, is far more melancholy, its sentiment more reflective of a long life lived: “What more could I have wished?” 

This evolution, or fluctuation, in the substantive purposes behind Pettibon’s drawings is what helped turn critics into admirers. Hudson, the late, one-named proprietor of New York’s Feature Gallery, who first began showing Pettibon’s art in the late 1980s, called the juxtaposition of images and texts in his work a “gap between meaning and non-meaning.” Speaking to Drohojowska in 1991, Hudson said Pettibon “is consistently discriminating about the values between things.… His subject matter, like the trains and baseball players, looks to be early 19th and 20th century superficially, but it is about right now. After all, we make sense of the present by understanding the past.”

Having lived a majority of his life in the Hermosa Beach house he grew up in, the man born Raymond Ginn is a product of Los Angeles and its cultural layers—down to his stage name, adopted from the tendency of his father, a high-school English teacher and budding crime novelist, to give all of his sons nicknames. (Depending on the day you ask, Pettibon will tell you his is either for a semifamous football player named John Petibon—a member of the National Champion Notre Dame team of 1949 and a member of the Louisiana Football Hall of Fame—or because Pettibon himself was the petit bon, the good little son.) He graduated from UCLA with an economics degree at the age of 19, and soon after started self-publishing zines of his drawings and writings under the name Superflux Pubs (which can still be copped on eBay and Amazon Marketplace for far less than what you should be paying for the early work of an internationally renowned artist).

The single most popular piece of art Pettibon has ever produced—is, in fact, ever likely to produce—is the logo for his older brother Greg Ginn’s punk band, Black Flag. The four uneven, inky monoliths were an ’80s secret password, an entryway to the murky world of hardcore punk, a gateway to an oppositional way of thinking about the inner workings of the American Dream. In a 2013 documentary produced by MOCA about Pettibon and the Black Flag logo, Henry Rollins, the band’s last lead singer, said that it became synonymous with “unrest, chaos, and disobeying anything you got.”

Beyond the logo, Black Flag was the first conduit toward Pettibon’s work being widely disseminated. The original pieces that he refashioned as flyers and posters for the band’s shows and record covers became the de facto visual language of Southern California punk and the Reagan decade, ominously referencing the country’s underbelly Pettibon_2history: darkly realistic comic book–like panels full of pervy cops, evil nuns, Nixon, and Jesus Christ nailing Charlie Manson to the cross. In MOCA’s documentary, Flea, bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, talks about “walking around Hollywood and seeing Raymond’s flyers and being like, ‘what the fuck is that?’” Like graffiti, Pettibon’s flyers were taking back public spaces, unmistakable signposts about conversations that citizens were having far from the nightly news.

Somewhere along the line, as Black Flag became an influential signifier, the logo became one of the most popular tattoos in the country’s parlors. Now, thanks to the commodification and endless re-contextualization of culture, that logo has become a meme—omnipresent and malleable.

In the wake of his 1990 record cover for Sonic Youth’s major-label debut, Goo—part of a moment when the underground and mainstream made their first tentative steps toward cultural miscegenation, that the internet would subsequently turn into the absolute refracted future—Pettibon became an art-world darling. In 1992, Schimmel put him in the group show Helter Skelter, a survey of the dark side of the City of Light, alongside local heavyweights Chris Burden and Mike Kelley; there were solo exhibitions at MOCA in 1999 and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2005. Along the way he picked up mainstream gallery representation from Regen Projects in West Hollywood and New York’s David Zwirner. By 2013, when the lifelong Angeleno relocated to Manhattan with his wife, the video artist Aïda Ruilova, and became a father, his drawing of Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson sliding past an umpire and a catcher (“Where Brooklyn At?” “Moses: ‘Out!’” “Jackie Stole Home!” it reads) had been installed on a billboard alongside the city’s newest outdoor attraction, the High Line, in the heart of the upscale Chelsea gallery district.

Did the Jackie Robinson billboard symbolically announce Pettibon’s emergence from the shadows into the canon of modern red, white, and blue creative consciousness? Or was it simply his change-of-address announcement? The man long associated with the art scene of LA, where the Brooklyn Dodgers famously and contentiously decamped, celebrated becoming a resident of New York City by loudly, publicly, gratuitously depicting one of the city’s—and baseball’s— finest denizens, performing an act of historical rarity and exceptional guile. The scene had all the hallmarks of a classic Pettibon piece, especially those that depict sport: a play on the wistfulness of American memory that reflects personal and social meaning, and a deep reminder of the original sin at the heart of the nation’s soul, forever wrapping around even its most playful manifestations.

Pettibon does not simply return to surfing and baseball because he grew up in a California beach town and participated in the nation’s pastime as a kid (and still does: he had a pitching machine installed in his artist studio). He returns to these topics because they’re living filters, still shifting the public’s point of view—and his own. Speaking to PBS in 2003, he explained his love of drawing baseball players: “If you look at my baseball works, there is a kind of larger-than-life attitude to a lot of it. But then, not all the works are a pure adulation of the ball players. I mean, [the works] go into some pretty sordid avenues.” And then there is what he feels the game actually stands for: “My work on the subject does tap into some of the nuances of the game—the pitching of the baseball, for instance, or hitting a baseball—but also it says a lot about what goes on off the field as well about society in general. It’s kind of a microcosm of the society as a whole.”

Around the time of the 1999 MOCA show, Pettibon told Drohojowska, “Sometimes I have this fantasy that in the long run, [my art] can work as a diary that will sum up my life and thoughts. Yet that would take longer than I have on Earth. There would always be something more to be said. It could never be summed up, there would always be some qualification. It’s like mathematics. There is always some number like pi—it’s never finalized.”