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Drafting Pettibon

The scrawled and energetic draftsmanship of Raymond Pettibon.

Light / Dark

In the 1970s, the Steve Pezman-published Surfer magazine offered up a thematic issue based around the intersection of fine art and surfing. Wisely, it featured a deft bit of cover art by John Severson, Surfer’s art-infused founder. You see, thanks to John, surfing has always been imbued with visual articulations of our collective ride. Since it’s inception, The Surfer’s Journal has defended the art/surf interface, and made it a part of our DNA. It’s been a joy to unroll the works of some truly accomplished and visionary artists these 26 years. A dozen years ago, writer Dan Duane dropped a feature on South Bay punk rock chronicler Raymond Pettibon. Seeing the surfing theme rendered with Pettibon’s scrawled and energetic draftsmanship made perfect sense. Duane’s words gave the works welcome background, and the piece remains a favorite here. —Scott Hulet


The whole Pettibon thing goes like this: I’m at a New York dinner party with my wife and I’m happy to be there, because Sam and Ilena are smart and funny and cool, and their small dining room is crowded with overstuffed bookshelves, and they embody the killer intellectual and literary life we imagine we’d lead if we moved to New York, which we won’t, because I won’t move away from my surf spots—I get sad and sick at the very thought. And I’m getting happily drunk and trying to be a good conversationalist, when this very smart guy, a regular Mr. Atlas of the intellect, hears that I’m a surfer and gulps a little wine and says he saw some Raymond Pettibon surf art in Soho that very afternoon. I’ve never heard of Pettibon (hey, shoot me), but I like the fact that there’s no wink-wink in the way this guy’s talking about surf art. He’s not saying, “What a funny lark it was to see provincial surfy stuff here in the Big Apple.” He’s not even being a Williamsburg hipster, knowing that it’s now cool to think surfing is cool. He’s just a serious guy, and he’s saying he’s seen serious art at a serious gallery by a serious artist, and that it’s about surfing. So I ask him to repeat the name.

“Raymond Pettibon,” says Mr. Atlas, the way you’d say “Andy Warhol,” as if you couldn’t possibly not know who the guy was, so I nod as if I just didn’t hear Mr. Atlas the first time. I guess I don’t really know anything about art, I’m thinking, but I sure wish I did. I love art. Drama, too. I wish I knew more about drama. Except I always get so bored in plays.

Then somebody else at the table, somebody who isn’t as insecure as I am, confesses that he’s never heard of Pettibon, and Mr. Atlas says that Pettibon is internationally famous, but also has a kind of underground-comix street-cred. Grew up in Redondo, still lives there, got his start in the late 70s by self-publishing these weird zine-like things under titles like “Asbestos” and “Tripping Corpse.” Very R. Crumb, dark and creepy and hip. Then Pettibon’s brother, Greg Ginn, founded Black Flag with Henry Rollins in the early 1980s, and Pettibon drew super angry stuff for them—like the cover of the album “Slip It In,” with a nun wrapping her arm around a hairy male leg. But since then he’s done endless drawings with text on them, a lot of baseball players and Manson and skinheads. Aching re-appraisals of the 1960s fall-from-grace—the Kennedy assassinations, racial violence, moral corruption. The 80s, too—Elvis crucified on the cross; Nancy Reagan (“Sex with Nancy is like copulating with a well oiled machine”). All of which worries me, because I wonder if Pettibon’s surf art will be dark and ironic and hip. I don’t really do dark and ironic and hip when it comes to surfing.

*

The art’s gone: “We took it down this morning,” says the blonde receptionist at the David Zwirner Gallery in Soho, among the hardwood floors and 20-foot ceilings. “But we have slides if you’d like to see them.” She opens a binder and pulls out a half-dozen, and I get the shivers, because they’re not dark and ironic and hip at all. They’re gorgeous, and weirdly cerebral, but also inspiring—loose, sketch-like images of tiny surfers on colossal waves. They don’t aspire to perfect realism; they’re like scrawlings in your notebook from a long, tropical surf trip. (“Drawn in the faltering hand of someone naively copying an image from some other two dimensional source,” writes a critic. “Bad technique is absolutely essential to the anti-heroic attitude…” and yet Pettibon denies any intent: “I know that drawing is not my strong point. I’m trying to do my best, though. I’m not trying to make ‘bad’ art.”)

His work is gorgeous, and weirdly cerebral, but also inspiring—loose, sketch-like images of tiny surfers on colossal waves. They don’t aspire to perfect realism; they’re like scrawlings in your notebook from a long, tropical surf trip.

I’m also getting a contemplative feel, as if riding 30-foot surf could be an introspective experience. Perhaps it can be. I wouldn’t know. What about the text, though? Above a wave that could be Waimea, Pettibon has written, O SHIPMATES, WHY SAIL FOR ANY PORT? LET US SAIL FOR THE SAKE OF SURFING. I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about, I’m thinking, but I like the vibe. Another has a surfer in peaceful forward trim on a Jaws-sized monster and the words, I HAVE ALWAYS TRIED TO LIVE IN AN IVORY TOWER; BUT A SEA OF SHIT, RISING UP FROM BELOW THE GROUND, IS BEATING UP AGAINST ITS WALLS, IT’S ENOUGH TO BRING IT DOWN.

That’s exactly what surfing does for me: It lifts me above the muck and mire; it lets me escape for a few hours and get perspective. Along the picture’s bottom, red letters say, WE BURN WITH DESIRE TO FIND A FIRM FOOTING, AN ULTIMATE, LASTING BASE ON WHICH TO BUILD A TOWER RISING UP TO INFINITY, BUT OUR FOUNDATION CRACKS, PEELS; THE EARTH OPENS UP INTO THE DEPTH OF THE ABYSS. And I relate to this, too, so I’m on my way to being sold.

Other questions come to mind: Who does the talking? The surfer? Pettibon himself? Is Pettibon the surfer?

(“Sometimes I have this fantasy,” he has said, not to me, “that in the long run, it 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.” But lest we should think this offers a clue, Pettibon tells another interviewer that the text “always had to do with reading things from the world at large—media, television, music, books—rather than being personal or anecdotal.” In other words: Don’t look for me in the text. I’m not there.)

The next slide shows a gargantuan blue wave with a surfer just barely outrunning the curl, and the words, “Well, you needn’t take my precious time with marking and re-marking here how the above is condemned to speedy frustration and collapse.” I’m sensing word play: the text itself is both a form of “marking” and a way of “remarking” on what’s happening to the wave. And likewise, the next bit: “Now that I am out of the tube and riding the wall…history is written in my wake.” A pun, right? Riding the wall…writing on the wall. And the feeling of escape, of being ahead of the curve, out of danger. But what of the rest? “It’s all wiped out in the whitewash,” Pettibon continues, and, at the very bottom of the image, “It interpenetrates my plastered ass.”

You have to play, I guess: “Interpenetrates” gestures at the transcendent quality of surfing, the one-with-nature quality, but “penetrates my ass” is also present here, while the word “plastered” backs away even from the anal sex hint. Pettibon hints and retreats, I think. Doesn’t want to commit, or else wants many meanings to remain possible. (Someone asked him at a school, “Who are you doing this for?” and Pettibon replied, “‘I’m doing it for my mom.’ I meant it to bring laughs, but in fact, she’s a better audience than they are. The older you are, the more background you have in the intellectual world, and my mother’s main thing is metaphysics. Christian Scientists relate to people on a spiritual level, and there is an affinity with that in my work.”)

But it’s still not clear if the text is in the voice of the surfer, or the voice of the artist, or neither. If it’s the voice of the surfer, I follow: it reminds me of the quiet interiority of surfing, the way you drift around with your most private thoughts. Your mind wanders to funny places. Sometimes you really do have deep thoughts. If it’s not, I’m lost.

And where do the words come from, anyway?

*

Raymond Pettibon, A Reader, the pseudo-catalogue from a real Pettibon exhibition, and published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1993, offers source material, Pettibon’s reading: Mickey Spillane, John Ruskin, George Santayana, Marcel Proust, Charles Manson, William Blake. He apparently reads widely, relentlessly, says he swims in words and that his art is a response to literature. Does this mean he loves to read?

“I don’t think since I’ve been a teenager have I read a book from beginning to end by getting caught up in the plot. I kind of wander away en route. The kinds of books I like to read seem to be obscure and boring works of philosophy and criticism. In my case, there is too much going on in the interim. Obviously, I borrow quite a bit from them in my own work, and it’s not just a matter of editing. It becomes my context.”

More surf art, at least, in Raymond Pettibon, A Reader: the surfer in cool sunglasses, hair slicked back, shooting the curl as ever. The text: “CATCH THE DRIFT. TO WHAT END? THE CONTINENTS DRIFTING APART, NOT SPEAKING.” And below, “PERHAPS ONE DRIFTS OFF INTO RHETORIC HERE, BUT THEN THERE IS NOTHING MORE CONGENIAL THAN THAT TO THE IMAGINATION.

There is apparently ‘some methodological connection here, however indirect, to John Ashbery’s stream-of-consciousness verse and William Burroughs’s cut-and-paste prose, in which the plain and the portentous are constantly changing seats, and meanings are kept opaque.’

More word play, right? Toying with the word “drift?” But once again, does it mean anything?

Pettibon’s is “a pop cultural erudition and an interest in marrying words and pictures,” writes a critic. “But that is about it. His studied slacker casualness is a 90s thing. So is his passive-aggressive sense of existential discontent and his eye for monotony as beauty… Under its almost numbing opacity, edgy currents eddy and swirl, and there is a distinctive, off-beat, very American-style poetry at work.”

“Essentially, this is an art of non sequitur,” according to Holland Cotter in the New York Times, “in which images and texts (some by Mr. Pettibon, others drawn from literature) lead nowhere in particular but kick up some interesting dust along the way.” There is apparently “some methodological connection here, however indirect, to John Ashbery’s stream-of-consciousness verse and William Burroughs’s cut-and-paste prose, in which the plain and the portentous are constantly changing seats, and meanings are kept opaque.”

*

“Honestly,” says Pettibon’s L.A. representative, when I call. “He’s done way too many interviews lately. It’s interfering with his work.”

So, I call the Zwirner Gallery. “Nothing personal,” I’m told. “He’s done way too many interviews lately. It’s interfering with his work.”

I bet it’d be different, I’m thinking, if I said I was from the New York Times, or Art Forum. But I start looking through newspaper archives, instead, trying to access this guy through the encounters of others. I learn that Pettibon was born in 1957, the fourth of five children to Oie and Regis Ginn, that he grew up in Redondo, that his father taught English and wrote spy novels. I learn that he went to Mira Costa High and then UCLA, where he was an econ major and drew political cartoons for The Daily Bruin. He graduated college at 19, taught math in public schools, decided to become an artist under the name given to him by his father in childhood—Petit Bon, from the French for “little good.”

What’s it mean to cling to your dad’s childhood nickname for you? Is that a little weird? I think that might be a little weird. Or maybe he’s just real close to his folks.

From Henry Rollins’ Get In The Van, On the Road With Black Flag:

6/29/84: Big Friday night. Pettibon is listening to jazz and watching the baseball game. Anything could happen. Anything? Well, it’s really a big, fat zilch. Nothing ever happens around here. Kind of cool in a way. You get time to yourself in this house. No one ever calls. No one comes over. Pettibon never stops working. He rarely talks. He just draws and reads and he never stops. It’s incredible. At the end of the day, there is a pile of drawings on the floor. All great, too. I don’t know how he does it.

1/30/85: I watch Pettibon a lot. He does so many drawings. He’s my favorite artist. He’s brilliant. He makes no phone calls. I wish I didn’t have to make phone calls. I don’t want to talk to anybody.

2/3/85 SHED: The shed is cold. I am cold. People bum me out. About an hour ago I was sitting in the house going through Pettibon’s new work…

2/20/85 SHED: Neutralization. Neutralize. Kill the pain. Drown the hurt. Desensitize. Embrace the non-pain. The palm fronds are slapping together. I am waiting for sleep. I sleep alone. Sleep alone, wake up alone, and so on. Pettibon is in the front room with me. I heard him say about four words today. Three of them were, “I don’t care.” I know how he feels. I feel like it’s 1982 again.

3/30/85: I sat in the yard today and talked with Pettibon for a while. He’s real cool—real smart.

4/28/85: Sitting in the living room of the Ginns’. I don’t feel like sitting in the shed right now. So, I am here in the living room with Pettibon.

9/17/85 TUCSON, AZ: We had a show that night in L.A., so almost everybody stayed at Ratman’s. Staci came and picked me up and took me to the Ginns’. It was strange walking in there. Pettibon was in his usual place—so was Ms. Ginn. Felt good to be back in the shed.

7/12/86 SHED: The door to the shed had a seven-foot pot plant growing next to it when I got back. Thanks Pettibon. That’s all I need. Funny guy. Fuck it. I don’t feel like writing anything. Life has slowed down to a crawl. Without the tour, I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel like getting in a fight or slicing myself up some.

*

I read elsewhere that Pettibon still lives in this house, still with his parents, at age 47, and that his studio is still in the living room—“cluttered with piles of drawings,” writes a visitor, “magazines and, more than anything else, books. Stacked on the dining table, next to bottles of ink, pens, and brushes, are Benvenuto Cellini’s biography, several volumes on baseball players, a recent horse racing sheet, and a few comics. One shelf contains his expanding collection of old wooden tennis rackets, while a corner cabinet is filled with porcelain cups and plates that were delicately painted by his grandmother.” There were apparently two cocker spaniels in the house—named Barely Noble and Vaguely Noble—and a longhair dachshund named for the word “untitled” in German. Pettibon himself is described as having “curling black hair, graying at the temples,” a “brooding look, with a boxer’s nose,” and “long, immaculately groomed hands that he holds very still, a small mouth, and a laugh that seems to surprise him when it comes.” At least once, he was wearing “surfer shorts and T-shirt,” his brown eyes “rarely met a visitor’s gaze.” Another time, in Europe, he was “Tall, a little limping since he had broken his foot…but still leading when walking…shy as sensitive people can be, a visionary who lets you see instead of talking but still explaining with kindness and looking for words.”

And here’s Pettibon on himself: “I have a deadpan, unexpressive face, which is actually the way I feel on the inside. I don’t get excited. I’ve never gotten excited. It’s my nature. It’s like athletes these days. If they make a routine play, they jam their mitt up and make a big display. It used to be that if you hit a home run, you trotted around the bases with your head down, not showing up the other team. I thought it was more classy not to show up the other team. It’s not a conscious thing. That’s just my temperament.”

But wait a minute, which is it? A lack of internal excitement? Or a deliberate humility in the face of one’s own home runs?

In another surf drawing: “We read not of any in Scripture.” Not of any what? Big waves? Big-wave surfers? And doesn’t this suggest that perhaps we could or should? That the great surf lifts the human spirit?

*

The mailman brings another book: the Phaidon Contemporary Artists Series volume, Raymond Pettibon. And now I can see more of Pettibon’s oeuvre, from over the years: lots of locomotives (“When I see a train, I want to take it in my arms”), and collections of penises (“We share a wide community of belief”), and also Gumby and Superman and Jesus, and not just a few surf images. Surf images are everywhere. Year after year. An entire book, titled Nautilus, handmade and shown at an oak table during a show, has a whole series of cartoon panels related to surfing. Says one: “Kurek had already caught some splendid gleams. There would be no cathedral without it.” And what’s at work here? The catching gleams like catching waves, gleams as apparently the shine of God, of the divine—the surfing impulse as akin to the religious impulse. Again, in another surf drawing: “We read not of any in Scripture.” Not of any what? Big waves? Big-wave surfers? And doesn’t this suggest that perhaps we could or should? That the great surf lifts the human spirit?

Raymond Pettibon also includes a long, rambling interview, and, at last, I think, I will meet the man. But here, too, Pettibon is elusive: Cooper asks about the relationship between Pettibon’s Black-Flag album covers and punk rock music, and Pettibon says the artwork was not in any way inspired by the music. Period. “Except for one or two cases where some knucklehead would come to me and say he had this great idea: ‘Oh, you’ve got to do this!’ And sometimes, just because of friendships with the people involved, I’d use the idea.” Pettibon says, “I’m not a topical artist, and I usually maintain a historical distance from my subjects…” He says, “My art just doesn’t come out of emotion. It doesn’t really draw up that much heat, personally. Partly that’s a reflection of my personality, I guess.”

Cooper pushes it, pointing out that certain images recur in Pettibon’s work—Superman, Charles Manson—and some recur over many, many years, like surfing and baseball.

And, still, Pettibon hangs tough, unwilling to be known: “Yeah, well,” he says, “I think any particular image that I’ve used over and over again was born for the first time every time I used it. It’s not connected to the earlier usage. There wasn’t some grand scheme of things. For whatever reason, I just started from there again and had plenty more to say on the subject, I guess.”

The guy’s tough. Suddenly, I’m starting to wonder if an interview would’ve worked out anyway.

“Okay,” Cooper says, “then let’s say surfing. On the one hand, you’re a Californian who grew up and lives near the beach, so the association is a natural one. But at the same time, there’s an almost utopian quality to your surfing and ocean imagery, as though the idea of surfing was more of a dream than something readily available to you.”

Pettibon: “I don’t surf much any more, but I grew up with it. I was never a card-carrying surfer. But, yeah, some of the motifs I use, like surfing or baseball or drag racing, I do have more of a passive relationship with them. But that doesn’t mean there’s a longing. There really isn’t a personal relationship there that explains it.”

Yeah, screw the interview. This guy wouldn’t like me.

Cooper: “So the fact that you live near the beach, and have surfed, is completely unhelpful in explaining the recurrence of this imagery in your work?”

“Yeah, these really aren’t obsessions of mine. I could do a thousand drawings of a certain thing, and that doesn’t mean it’s more important to me. On the other hand, there are things that interest me about surfing or baseball, more so than other sports, and that’s a factor. But that really doesn’t come back to me so much. It’s not personal.”

But later in the same book, another interviewer asks Pettibon the million-dollar question: “Are you much of a surfer?”

“No, not for a while,” Pettibon says, but then he adds, with a hint of the feeling I guess I’ve been wanting all along, “I’d like to get back in shape and do it once more.”

Well, Raymond, my number’s listed.


* Pick up a copy of TSJ 14.1, or scroll through the images at the top of the page to see more of Pettibon’s work.