The Universe of Raymond Pettibon

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The unique world of Raymond Pettibon, which is now getting a retrospective at the New Museum, is born out of popular culture, the counterculture in its multiple forms, politics, sports, voyeurism, religion, nostalgia and a sense of failed heroic identity. It is Pettibon’s ability to blend his prose and image together, both unique and borrowed, that creates this new universe which so closely mimics our own. Although on the surface Pettibon’s work may seem pessimistic or even nihilistic, there is a feeling that through the darkness a new profound understanding of self can be discovered and with that a glorious truth. Click ahead to explore the works comprising the Raymond Pettibon: Four Decades selling exhibition opening on 2 February. –George O’Dell

Raymond Pettibon: Four Decades
2 February–17 March

The Universe of Raymond Pettibon

  • No Title (Drop in with...), 1999
    The notion of escape from expectations of others and the anti-hero is one of the strongest identities within the Pettibon character lexicon. The most significant – or perhaps recognisable – group of Pettibon’s tragic heroes is the surfer. No Title (Drop in with...), 1999  is one of the strongest and most classic surfer images produced by Pettibon. In one sense, this work can be seen as the artist challenging his place within the greater narrative of art history. To look at the surfer further is to think of the Type A and often macho American counterculture hero. The stereotype of the surfer is both athletic and outside the mainstream, no matter how much popular culture tries to appropriate him. In the moment of the action, the surfer is alone in the tube with his wave, unless we of course drop in with him, thus stealing that moment away.

  • No Title (This meant the...), 2001
    While many wouldn’t consider a train a main character in the traditional sense, we may take Pettibon’s trains to be the apocalyptic answer to Thomas the Tank Engine’s eternal optimism. The train in America can be read as an object of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream first envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and expanded upon by the opening of the American West. However fatally, we see that the American train system that propelled Americans into the West in search of a new and better prospect has itself all but collapsed in comparison to other advanced nations across the world. In No Title (This meant the...), 2001, we are confronted with a steam locomotive pushing its way across the rolling hills. The opening line reads, ‘This meant the loss of half a day.’ Does this mean time in the journey or pay for the engineer? The epic journey is elaborated upon in an almost unending existential crisis of being on a never ending and never starting, just an infinite line. The crisis is concluded when the narrator ‘Decided to turn round (and) go back.’ Surely this is a failed attempt at entering the mighty West and crushed sense of optimism at the end of the line.

  • No Title (After some delays…), 2001
    The other train in the exhibition depicts a more Modern Santa Fe Railway locomotive pushing across the Pacific Northwest. In the text we hear more of the artist’s voice as he moves along ‘escaping the hanging committee’ and presses forward with his only motivator, ‘nothing as usual, but to rail – against the doing of men.’ The artist is escaping the present reality and responsibility, but at the same time embracing the need to highlight the good and ills of his fellow man (in this case the Chief Pullman and the Engineer). The narrative and image interplay creates multiple stories comparing the escapism of the American train hopper and the artist grappling with freedom of expression amongst an ever critical art world.

  • No Title (Tijuana trading cards...), 2001
    Perhaps more mainstream and overtly anti-hero are the baseball players in Pettibon’s world. As an avid fan of the sport and its many side stories, the ballplayers often lead to the darker and sometimes mythical side of professional sports. In No Title (Tijuana  trading  cards...), 2001, we see perhaps the sad reality of a faded star now removed from the big leagues in America to South of the border. Drunk and lewd, there is an acknowledgement of glory or the prospect of pure athletic prowess to shine once again. On deck and waiting to bat, the player asks ‘Christ! What have I done to rate a god-blasted curve like that?’ acknowledging that his old persona still resonates within other players. However, we can see in the image that the downward journey to the leagues south of the border has played on his vices. Drunk, with tobacco dip dribbling off his chin and exposed, a jeer rings out from the crowd ‘Sober up Jocko’ competing with the supportive taunts that ‘the pitcher’s got a rubber arm.’ We are confronted in the image with the feeling of being at the game and the site of faded glory in players, our past heroes, who have lingered in their twilight just a bit too long. The exploits and scandals of players like Wade Boggs, Bernie Carbo, Kyle Farnsworth and the infamous Dock Ellis (who once pitched a nohitter while on LSD) are called to mind. Ellis, like the others, went on to falter under the pressures of drink and drugs while spiraling out of the big leagues. These stories, while tragic, also bore the magic of infamy of a not too distant past where things seemed less constrained and the status of an athlete and rock star could be one in the same.


  • No Title (Tough guy. Don’t...)
    If surfers and baseball players present us with notions of our masculine identity both stoic and faded, then it is use of voyeurism and sex that challenges the viewer to question their own moral compass, to peak through closed eyes and perhaps we too linger a little too long with the unfolding scene. Overt sexuality and exploration of one’s own sexual identity is prevalent throughout Pettibon’s oeuvre and career. Pursuant to this is the 1995 work No Title (Tough guy. Don’t...). We must ask ourselves: Is the image to hand homage to Thomas Eakins’ images of wrestlers? A depiction of locker room antics, or perhaps something more? Is the image even sinister or is there a shared pleasure in the experience? This is the question we are confronted with and left to linger over

  • No Title (There is no...), 2011
    In tandem with this pseudo-homoerotic imagery is the peering eye upon the female, behind closed doors and often undressed. The women depicted are both trapped and powerful. They hold our attention such as in No Title (There is no...), 2011 and are completely helpless in works like No Title (It felt good...), 1999 [next slide]. In No Title (There is no...), the scale and format of the work along with the text seem to overtly reference centerfold images made famous in magazines such as Playboy. The text ‘but her unfolding’ pushes this reference further while also progressing the lingering voyeuristic position the viewer is placed in.


  • No Title (It felt good...), 1999
  • No Title (We are left...), 2003
    In a gesture to illicit youthful exploits the work No Title (We are left...),  2003 seems to reference the peeping tom scenes of movies like Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House. Indeed the power of Pettibon’s adaptation of Hollywood and the film industry make their way into multiple facets of the works in the present collection.



  • No Title (Make and shoot!...), 2001
    Film Noir and Old Hollywood resonate most astutely in Pettibon’s appropriation of film characters and scenes. No Title (Make and shoot!...), 2001 makes clear reference to the shootout scenes of Hollywood classics and more recent gangster remake films. While pulling imagery from a place of nostalgia, the present day is all too poignant; the image confronts us with the state of guns and gun ownership. Thugs and morally flawed law officers compete for page space along with femme-fatale figures, jaded lovers and civilians swept up in the storm of a larger urban drama. While these works play on nostalgia in their character portrayal, they still resonate in present day by evoking the nastier side of social American history or a personal history we have chosen to put away.



  • No Title (Who struck at…), 1987
    God also carries great weight and dictums in the world of Pettibon coming in the form of the sword in the sky, sending down edicts from on high. The 1987 drawing No Title (Who struck at...) gives the tome of a vengeful God waiting to take on those who would dare challenge.  Through Pettibon’s blending of image and word, the God drawings add another layer and vision to this thinly populated universe.


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