The Story of the Icon

Raymond Pettibon's memorable icons—fire, lightning, wave, surfer, eye, dick, train, candle, cross, the letter A, Bible, Gumby—are as instantly recognizable as Keith Haring's radiant men. Emerging 20 years ago from the L.A. punk music scene, Pettibon has sketched thousands of image-text drawings, many of which were first presented in a series of self-published zines, folded and center-stapled 8 1/2-by-11 sheets, and issued in minute print runs. Reading these photocopied zines, so slight, a mere 20 or so pages apiece, one feels directly pipelined to Pettibon's outsider roots. You can almost see him, young, shaggy, a guy in his mother's tract home inking away like crazy in his bedroom.

Now Swiss curator Roberto Ohrt reprints 30 of these rare pamphlets in Raymond Pettibon: The Books 1978-1998, maintaining their original small format, and adding two previously unpublished volumes, followed by a catalog of all of Pettibon's books with thumbnails of their covers. The resulting omnibus is daunting, massive—two and a half inches thick—and frustrating to use. Even consulting the table of contents, it can take several minutes to find the beginning of a specific volume. There are no page numbers; issues are crammed together, the back cover of one volume facing the front cover of the next.

Nonetheless, the chronologically ordered zines offer an overview of Pettibon's stylistic range. We watch as the labored precision of the early drawings gives way to broad, urgent brush strokes. The original close, direct connection between image and text moves toward layering of multiple voices and their enigmatic relation to the drawing. As the sheer volume of words increases, Pettibon's brushwork images threaten to dissolve to pure abstraction. Frequently words are placed on either side of vertical bars, broken up, hard to read, producing a halting, aphasic effect. In one drawing a woman lies dead as a man looks on. The caption reads, "My girlfriend got tired of me." Understatement of the language, overstatement of the inferred action are two constants in Pettibon's work.

A drawing from Raymond Pettibon’s The Observable World (1985).
From Raymond Pettibon: The Books 1978–1998
A drawing from Raymond Pettibon’s The Observable World (1985).

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Raymond Pettibon: The Books 1978-1998
By Raymond Pettibon
Edited by Roberto Ohrt
D.A.P., 898 pp., $75 hardcover, $50 paper
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Crudely rendered drawings by "Master Nelson Tarpenny," Pettibon's grade-school-age nephew, are interspersed throughout the zines. At first this inclusion feels trite, sloppy, but presently Pettibon's strategy begins to seem inspired, a brilliant, sick coup of exploitation. Above a scribbled A-bomb Tarpenny scrawls, "When it comes I'll be playing!" A guy shooting up complains, "Don't do it for me or I'll never learn how to do it." A figure with huge, snarling teeth wields a knife above a mutilated body, and shouts, "After I ate vitamins . . . I went wild." Between two Tarpenny drawings in Bottomless Pond (1986), Pettibon jars us with an image of child molestation, inserting his own drawing of a man picking up a young boy with the text "It may not seem like fun for you now but when you're a big boy you'll be doing the same things I do." Tarpenny's childhood innocence becomes a site of great risk, as it clashes with the corruption and violence of the world and the emergent self. His nephew's own violence, sexuality, and meanness only underscore Pettibon's primal content.

The pervasive, exuberant nastiness of Pettibon's art subverts intellectualizing. His horror is low-budget and banal. It's as if the early Meg Tilly thriller Impulsehas come true: Contaminated cow's milk has destroyed everybody's censor, and the id rages unfettered. Wildness is no longer trendy, but inevitable. In his lengthy introduction Ohrt describes Pettibon's books as a series of film stills in which the reader enters each story at a dramatic turning point. The extreme content of these jolts of arrested action is underscored by the extreme black-and-white contrast of the drawings. The tension between the flatness of Pettibon's rendering and the forced perspective of his image throws the viewer off-kilter. The text acts as Freudian intertitle, its meaning urgent yet private.

While locating Pettibon's influences in American film noir, horror, silent films, comic book art, and Los Angeles topology, Ohrt is charmingly self-deprecating. Ohrt's interesting and useful essay, unfortunately, keeps veering into the syntactical black hole of a sorry translation (by Warren Niesluchowski), numerous typos, and rather impressionistic punctuation. It looks like English, but its sentences wriggle away from comprehension. He despairs that the Americanness of Pettibon will never totally open to him, due to the limitations of his European perspective. The irony of course is that anyone who's talked to the eccentric Pettibon for even a minute knows he's not a typical American anything, though the iconography of America filters through his work like sunlight through the stained-glass windows of Chartres. Indeed, as 1998's Raymond Pettibon Reader, which contained excerpts from his favorite writers, revealed, Pettibon is as deeply immersed in European literature as were Henry Adams and Henry James before him—so the longing for a more authentic culture works both ways.

Reading The Books: 1978-1998 from cover to cover is a rush. Ultimately its ungorgeous disorder feels like the perfect presentation of the madness underlying Pettibon's worldview. As images and words flash beneath the harsh lighting of a naked bulb, one feels brainwashed into alterity, submerged into a world of guns, nudity, hacked body parts, mushroom clouds, nonstop masturbation, midget figures crying out, "Vavoom!"—a world ruled by Hugh Hefner and Joan Crawford.

The book denies the reader the white-space fetishism, the glossy expenditure of so many Art Books. It's small and dense, like a case study. Its claustrophobic layout encapsulates one in a manic journey, a Fantastic Voyage through Pettibon's icon-infested brain. One begins to feel affection for the repeated images, to smile as hippie after hippie jumps off the top of a building in glorious free fall, their hair whooshing upward like flames. Despite its cost, the book looks cheap, affordable, made for an audience of fans ready for a convention where they can dress up as acid-crazed Manson chicks, J. Edgar Hoover in headphones, giant black cocks. It's a book so big that if it fell on your head during an earthquake it would kill you.

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