It's an unforgettable image, mostly for its sheer irreverence. Against a deep red backdrop, a nun in full habit, with a gold cross around her neck, has her arm wrapped between the bare, hairy legs of a man. In the bottom corner is the following text: “Nobody knows more than I that the less girls know, the better they are likely to be.” On the upper thigh of the man's legs are four black bars-a signature mark. The image graces the cover of Slip It In, the 1984 album by the influential Los Angeles punk band Black Flag. It's one of many album covers drawn by Raymond Pettibon, whose brother was Black Flag's founder, guitarist and primary songwriter, Greg Ginn. Slip It In, along with other album covers and fliers he drew for Ginn's SST record label, established Raymond Pettibon as a seminal “punk-rock artist.”
Today, Pettibon's work is just as recognizable in rarified galleries as it once was in the hardcore punk scene. He was in La Jolla last week to install a large-scale wall painting commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD). During a break from painting, I asked him how he came up with the image for Slip it In.
“Well, I've dated a lot of nuns,” he quipped.
Pettibon went on to say that nuns are too “stuck up” and then weaved a more sophisticated genesis involving the whole of religious history and a cryptic critique of the Catholic Church. In the end, Pettibon settled on the idea that Pope John Paul was the model for the legs, as his were probably very hairy.
Sounds like a man with a dark but easy sense of humor, who perhaps effortlessly lobs witty zingers across a conversational net. Sounds like that-but the reality is something very different.
Pettibon looks like Geoffrey Rush's shy twin brother and rarely meets your eyes as he shifts nervously around the gallery. There are flashes of a sharp sense of humor, but his conversational style is-to put it mildly-labored. When he makes a statement, he almost immediately qualifies it, adding disclaimers and obscure tangents, punctuated by epic pauses. You get the sense that it's with much difficulty that he crosses over from the riotous country of his own mind to the mundane world of daily conversation.
He seems reluctant to classify his artwork in any way, and when critics and journalists try to do it, he bristles but ultimately surrenders: “I pretty much go along with the program out of convenience.” He explains that talking with critics and journalists is like “picking up some obnoxious hitchhiker who you don't want to get all riled up.” He adds, perhaps as it dawns on him that he's talking to a journalist, “I do, however, have a lot of respect for critics and writers as a whole.”
In light of that addendum, I decide not to do my best impression of a riled up, psychotic hitchhiker.
Pettibon started doing political cartoons for the college paper at UCLA, where he earned an economics degree. Those influences are still apparent in his work today, which often displays a similar visual language-a single image, pen and ink style, sometimes employing crosshatching, and always with text. Pettibon's first real exposure came with the album covers and flyers he drew for Black Flag, the Minutemen and other L.A. punk bands in the '70s and '80s.
“He came out of southwest L.A. and really defined what American hardcore looked like,” says Tony Vick, manager and buyer for Lou's Records in Encinitas. “You see his style imitated a lot, like the Minor Threat album Out of Step, which looks like a Pettibon drawing, with the pen-and-ink style and roughly drawn. He really became a kind of cult figure.”
Obviously, there's a stark contrast to the way Pettibon's work inhabits the public space of the museum versus that of the streets, where one could find his band fliers tacked up on telephone polls and pasted on walls throughout the city. Pettibon admits that, in some ways, the gallery of the streets represented an “ideal situation” but also notes that the audience for punk was small and generally unreceptive to art.
“It was part of the code they lived by to be very hostile to art,” he says.
Pettibon continued to do album covers into the early '90s, most notably for Sonic Youth's 1990 album, Goo. The cover features a couple, drawn in comic-book style and personifying so much self-conscious cool they could have walked right off the set of a Godard film. The cover also includes Pettibon's signature use of text, which in this case reads: “I stole my sister's boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road.” You can imagine this as the opening line to a classic B-movie, another genre Pettibon uses as source material.
MCASD film curator Neil Kendricks remembers the Goo cover art with a kind of reverence: “It's such a great image. I remember when Sonic Youth went on tour, they made T-shirts with the image on it, and I still have mine, but now it's all faded from wearing and washing it so much.”
Pettibon's audience has certainly expanded since the halcyon days of punk-rock purity. His work has been featured in national and international group and solo exhibitions, and he has a solo show opening next month at the Whitney Museum in New York. Last year, Pettibon was the recipient of the Whitney's Bucksbaum Award, a prize awarded biennially to a solo artist that includes a $100,000 purse-the largest sum given to an individual artist.
When Pettibon began achieving success in the fine-art world, his work was placed in an entirely new context with its own points of comparison. His style is sometimes compared to pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein, but that association ultimately falls short.
“I actually don't think they're the same at all,” comments MCASD curator Stephanie Hanor. “You can make some comparisons with the cartoon nature and use of text, but Lichtenstein is pulling from popular culture in his use of cartoons, and Raymond's text often comes from literary sources.... He's not interested in creating something that looks like a found image.”
And even as museums and galleries continue to embrace the art of comic books and graphic novels-in November, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the UCLA Hammer are mounting a show featuring the giants of the genre, including R. Crumb and Chris Ware, called Masters of 20th Century American Comics-Pettibon's artwork stands on its own as something wholly original.
Pettibon has an enormous body of work, made up mostly of drawings but also including wall paintings and collages, video and artist books. He's clearly interested in popular culture, as characters and subjects from that realm regularly show up in his work. For example, Pettibon's drawn more than one pop icon in his day, including Superman, Batman, Gumby, Vavoom (from Felix the Cat cartoons), Joan Crawford, J. Edgar Hoover and Charles Manson.
But Pettibon warns that the recurring motifs shouldn't be thought of as part of a series. “When I go off on the subjects that pop up regularly in my work, it's not because I had a design from the beginning... to have it progress or evolve. For whatever reason, it just had some appeal.”
So if multiple Charles Manson drawings were to be viewed together, they shouldn't necessarily add up to any broader comment on Manson and society. Of course, just the fact that there is a series of Manson drawings is itself a commentary on the resonance of the murderous man in American culture.
Pettibon may be a reluctant anthropologist, but the fact is his work is a testament to a cultural sensitivity processed through his own peculiar filter. “You can say as much on a subject in many different ways, but I guess the more important thing is being a sieve, staying open to potentially anything. I don't mark off my space under the kind of restrictions that some artists do.”
Other recurring motifs include images of surfing, baseball, trains and penises. He actually has an artist book called Thinking of You, a 232-page volume of silhouetted erect or semi-erect penises, a real paean to the male organ in all of its various glories.
Text is central to all of Pettibon's work, and it's the space where the image and the text converge that catapults a Pettibon piece to some strange land of narrative incongruity and singular vision. Sometimes the text is related to the image, as in a 1987 untitled drawing of white, silhouetted candles against a black backdrop, with haunting writing that reads, “I waited until my birthday to commit suicide.”
Other times, one's not quite sure how the text relates, if at all, as in a 1995 piece, again untitled, of a heavily inked image of two lovers on a bed, with the scrawled text, “I was persuaded that the devil lived near the doormat in a dark corner of the passage by my parents' bedroom.” Are the lovers the parents? Is this a child's fear of the adult world of his parent's bedroom, one that doesn't psychologically fit with how he understands them? Or is this just some kind of bizarre sweet nothing whispered in the lover's ear?
Seemingly unrelated or nonsensical text in a Pettibon piece can't help but spur reflection and often dark, sometimes funny, associations. He culls his text from varied sources but relies heavily on literature and philosophy. Having once been an avid reader, Pettibon keeps notebooks and scraps of paper with quotes that he comes across, and is especially fond of using the likes of Henry James, Mickey Spillane, Marcel Proust, William Blake, Samuel Beckett, Wittgenstein-even the Bible.
Pettibon's installation at MCASD's La Jolla location takes up the length of a long wall leading into the corner gallery, whose large windows overlook the ocean. For this site-specific work, he's appropriately chosen one of his surfing pieces-two large cresting waves with tiny surfers in their folds. The painting is composed of broad, robust strokes in purples, blues, greens and yellows along with significant white space. The three textual elements curve in the crests and rolls of the waves. “The sea is propelled by multitudes,” reads one; another says, “surf guam. surf our wake. join the navy.”
Despite growing up and continuing to live in Southern California, Pettibon is not much of a surfer-his interest in it lies in the image itself. In a Phaidon publication titled Raymond Pettibon, he talks about drawing a wave: “It has that epic nature, that sublime nature, that almost asks you to reproduce it full-scale on the wall.”
The piece is an interesting and useful counterpoint to Robert Irwin's classic “1?2?3?4?,” currently installed in the large windows of the adjoining gallery at MCASD and part of their permanent collection. Irwin's 1997 piece consists of three large squares cut into the window's glass that allow the smell and sounds of the ocean to penetrate the gallery space. What works about the juxtaposition of these two pieces is their different ways of responding to the site's phenomenal ocean vista.
Irwin's is a spare, elegant piece that asks the viewer to consider how we interact with a view. Pettibon's painting is raw, muscular and weighted with cultural reference. Both activate the space in very different ways, with the energy of Pettibon's piece matching the contemplative draw of Irwin's.
During a phone interview from L.A., Pettibon describes a new project by saying, “It keeps growing out of any container you try to put it in.” You get the sense he hopes the same is true about efforts to classify his work.
“I'm always going to be considered a punk-rock artist, or [associated with] surfing, Manson, whatever. And another reason for that is because once you get in print, that first thing printed about you becomes replicated and becomes your identity forever.”
Evident in his work, Pettibon has a keen understanding of the power of text and print, as well as the media images flooding our culture's visual landscape. It's almost as if, by merging unrelated images and ideas, his work is an effort to disrupt the power structure of image and text, to jumble the messages and create an alternative, individual, iconoclastic world of his own.
Sorry for the classification, Raymond, but you don't get more punk-rock than that.
Raymond Pettibon's installation at MCASD La Jolla is in the museum's Foster Gallery through Sept. 3, 2006.