A Pettibon Primer


A is for a lot of things in the art of Raymond Pettibon. It is for the aggressive, atonal look of his starkly black-and-white drawings. It is for accumulation and accretion. This survey of his art, organized by Ann Tempkin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Susanne Ghez of the Renaissance Society in Chicago, includes more than 500 works on paper. But even at this virtually unseeable number, you can imagine more. Although no one drawing stands out, and many fall flat, together they hum. Pettibon may be a candidate for one of those one-person museums.

A is also for his greatest accomplishment: the aggregate way he fuses words and images on paper, turning them into something new— not cartoons, illustration, illumination, or literature, but an obtuse art born in the amniotic fluids of poetry, philosophy, and dissent. And while Pettibon is no poet, the internal space his drawings carve out feels weirdly akin to the ultraconscious inwardness of poetry. I can’t think of another contemporary artist whose art does this.

Finally, A is for the awesome array of authors Pettibon borrows from. He claims to appropriate only “about a third,” but it feels like more. He has discovered, or invented, a vast labyrinthine language of languages— his own and others’. You can look at his work for years and never know him. Frank Capra created Bedford Falls, Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon; Pettibon’s world is a state of mind, utterly antianecdotal and slightly menacing.

“Bad Painting”: A group show organized by Marcia Tucker in 1978 at the New Museum. It defined an emergent strain of “bad” or “ugly” painting “in opposition to the canons of classical good taste.” Like William Wegman, whose scrawly pencil drawings were included in “Bad Painting,” Pettibon’s work grows out of conceptual art’s
antistylistic emphasis on subject matter. Pettibon is the apotheosis of so-called “bad” drawing: once people thought it sucked, now connoisseurs line up for it.

Biography: Born Raymond Ginn, June 16 (Bloomsday), 1957. An in-
betweener— neither hippy nor punk— he graduates from UCLA in 1977 with a B.A. in economics. Adopts nickname Pettibon, given to him by his father, a writer. People say he is loving, taciturn, and intelligent. Lives in Hermosa Beach, California.

Career: 1975­77, political cartoonist for UCLA newspaper. 1978, self-publishes Captive Chains, first of over 100 raw, scrawled, 20-to-30-page zines dealing with sex, violence, drugs, and hippies (other titles: Pig Cupid, Selfishness, and Tripping Corpses). Begins to mix and match graphic styles around 1983 (see Drawing). 1989, first solo show in New York at Feature (thank you, Hudson). Early ’90s, tone goes from acerbic to omnipotent-reflective. Following slowly grows from ragtag cult to high-muck-a-muck. The firepower at his Drawing Center opening was impressive: museum curators, important dealers and collectors, editors, and publishers.

Catalogue: Neat, but may be a curatorial cop-out. Called Raymond Pettibon: A Reader, it gives us a sampling of how much Pettibon has read, and boy, is it varied. It goes from Saint
Augustine and Charles Manson to Mickey Spillane and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Among other entries, there are two great lists of character names by Henry James, a few verses from Revelations, Francis Bacon’s “Of Love,” and a note from Flaubert to Turgenev. Curiously, of the 62 excerpts, only three are by women. The curators were too in awe of Pettibon, or trying to tell us, “See, he’s not a sociopath, he’s really smart.”

Crawford, Joan (1904­77): Icon of hysteria and creepy control with a manly, Olmec-like face. Crawford— like J. Edgar Hoover, whom Pettibon also draws a lot— was once the epitome of goodness and perfection; now a readymade image of irony. One drawing of her has the words “My mother was a monster who ate children.” (See Fixations.)

Drawing: Without the writing there would be no Raymond Pettibon— God of Drawing. The words and the pictures are inseparable. Pettibon deploys numerous graphic styles and visual sources (see also Juggernaut of Voices), among them: Hollywood noir, pulp-fiction covers, comic books, TV, and album-cover art. He has an autistic can-draw-anything-okay hand, neither fluid or tortured. Recognizable at a distance, it’s good enough to pull you in. Probably made artists like Jim Shaw, Sue Williams, and Karen
Kilimnik possible.

Elliptical: Although essential to one another, Pettibon’s words and images don’t necessarily relate in rational ways. It is their dissonances and incongruities that make them engaging. One picture of a Michelangelo-esque male torso reads “These two snorts were as sharp as a rattler’s clatter.” A lot of his work can seem like intermedia exquisite corpses, or examples of cut-and-paste thinking. Though his texts are digressive and circuitous, occasionally they are electric. Seeing a Pettibon brings you into close contact with another order of consciousness— one made of all the consciousnesses that it has encountered. It’s bizarre.

Fixations: President Kennedy’s love life and its connection to the Mafia, surfers, baseball, the Bible,
J. Edgar Hoover, Joan Crawford, Elvis, Charles Manson, the letter A, mushroom clouds, trains, and a lot of dicks. He also uses cartoon characters (see Gumby).

Gumby: 1959 claymation character who, like Pettibon, slips in and out of books, interacts with preexisting narratives, and alters stories. This psychic pliability is Pettibon’s “super power.”

Hell (and Back): Where Pettibon takes you. Though his work has grown more thoughtful of late, Pettibon’s view of the world is often apocalyptic, angry, or grim. He looks at sin, shame, and degradation with an arch eye. Skepticism is his middle name.

Installation: Collector-driven. I’ve never seen a show chosen and installed according to who owns the work. There are no dates given, no chronology, so there’s no sense of development. It turns Pettibon into a private club. However, it is a unique way to organize an artist who has produced more than 7000 drawings, and it avoids eye-numbing sprawl. Plus, on the cool side, you get a fly’s-eye view into certain collectors and museums. You can see who likes what, and who has the best eye. Here, individuals beat museums by far.

Juggernaut of Voices: Pettibon’s language comes in waves, in multiple styles and syntaxes; in curses, quips, fragments, and asides. In a single work, Pettibon might speak with the voice of God, of the artist, of someone telling a story, and someone commenting on that story. He uses every tense and idiom. He speaks in genres.

Every genre is a worldview, a way of thinking, be it detective story, romance novel, mathematical treatise, poem, play, or baseball card. Some of these tongues sound anachronistic, some contemporary; some are passing trends, or schools of speech, but they all carry memory and wisdom. Pettibon sees them all as unfinished and open; he combines these blocks of speech to create a kind of rogue genre, or a harmony of genres— a new blood type of language. He supplies the body, which is drawing, then he gets in your head.