What Remains To Be Said: An Interview with Raymond Pettibon

Raymond Pettibon, for all that he is an image maker, is also a man of the book. He reads them, thinks through forms of fragmented (and sometimes whole) narratives, and is constantly considering the way that words and images conspire inside his artwork. He especially admires artists like Goya and William Blake who have successfully combined the two forms.

For his part, Pettibon is always looking for a way into books, which accounts for his attraction to the figure of Gumby, the cartoon character who squeezes into various tomes, interacts with the characters he finds there and changes the direction of the originating story. There is a drawing from 1977, which shows a slightly turquoise Gumby attempting to pass through the brown cover of a book, pleading, “Let me in–Let me illustrate!” The other messages on the page combine advertising slogans with biblical utterance; “NO MERE FOOTNOTE,” “ILLUMINATION! NOT ILLUSTRATION!” and “IT IS REWRITTEN.” Characteristically, the drawing is untitled, but the parenthetical name is Staking His Claim. The claim comes from both the drawn character and the drawing artist. Gumby is Raymond’s surrogate.

Pettibon has said that he reads to find things between the lines, which qualifies him for membership in the Interstitionalist International. As a charter member, he sets out to make images that transform the meaning of the texts with which he is engaged. For him, the two modes of information are interdependent; in biological terms, they epitomize a kind of mutualism. The images and the words feed off one another and both are enhanced in the process.

Pettibon considers his writing style to be as recognizable as his drawing, so when he writes, what results is, invariably, a written drawing. In a text piece made in 1990 and published in the catalogue for Raymond Pettibon: A Reader, an exhibition organized in 1998 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and subsequently shown at The Renaissance Society in Chicago, The Drawing Center in New York and la moca), Pettibon starts out by quoting a Dickensian line: “Oh, kind sir, for charity’s sake, then! Just one little sou to buy some bread to eat by!” The letters are large, commensurate with their exclamatory nature (has any serious artist ever been more enamoured of the exclamation point?) and cover the paper from margin to margin. Then, mid-way down the page in much smaller script, he adds a commentary that shifts the emphasis away from fiction and towards the condition of making art: “And why shouldn’t the artist sometime take this rather direct approach?”

While he has a drawing that declares “an artist is not a comedian,” what is everywhere apparent in Pettibon’s work is his mordant sense of humour. What Willa Cather said about Stephen Crane–“even his jokes were exceedingly drastic”–applies equally to Pettibon. A black ink and correction fluid on paper drawing from 1984 shows a naked woman holding an axe in her hands and looking determinedly down at a man’s severed head on the ground. There is inky blood everywhere, on her arms, on the axe and splattered about the floor. The caption comes from Lizzie Borden via Freud’s workshop: “Perhaps the fact that I hadn’t had sex in three whole days left me vulnerable.”

Pettibon’s first solo exhibition in New York was in 1986 at the Semaphore Gallery in the East Village. He was 29. But he began making drawings in the late ’70s, producing his own photocopied fanzines and album covers for Black Flag, the la punk band in which his brother played lead guitar. His la was Helter Skelter country. In this psychic landscape, Gumby is one character who draws Pettibon’s attention, and Charlie Manson is another. Among the almost 60 selections from writers, philosophers, poets and filmmakers that appear in A Reader is an excerpt from Manson’s Trial Testimony in 1970. It is a wayward document, alternately lucid and inchoate, chillingly narcissistic, and haunting. Manson’s conclusion is that regardless of what society does to him, he is immortal, a status he confers on himself because “I am only what you made me, I am only a reflection of you.” (A drawing from 1986 shows him cheerfully saying, “I am your reflection, not your opposite”). Pettibon recognizes that Manson’s powers of persuasion were seductive enough to transform the proverbial girl next door into a monster. “The effect he had on people was that anything was possible and nothing was safe.”

There is in Pettibon’s work, too, a feeling of physical and psychological instability, a sense that things have gone too far and are in the process of collapsing. In a drawing from a 28-page zine called thin, thin cross (published in 1986 in an edition of 50 numbered copies), we see a priest on the phone. We don’t know who he is talking to but his message is utterly clear. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid it’s too late,” he says. “Vulva is already at the crossroads.” In one read, the caption is a rude joke with a specific bodily focus. In another, it is consistent with the mixture of sex, sin and salvation that sits like a tarnished halo over each of the drawings in thin, thin cross. But in still another, we realize all of us, and the cultures we inhabit, are in exactly the same place. The value of Pettibon’s work is its direct gaze at those moments of social and psychic transformation where we find ourselves not just at the crossroads, but in the crosshairs of his unblinking eye.

Raymond Pettibon was interviewed by telephone from his studio in Venice, California, on June 26, 2010.

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