“Art is the last place anyone is
going to derive their inspiration from”
By Steven Cerio
Like most people on the East Coast in the early Eighties, I first witnessed RAYMOND PETTIBON’s work gracing his brother Greg Ginn’s early Black Flag Lps as well as the gate-fold of the Minutemen’s classic Double Nickels On The Dime. On the West Coast, his work had wallpapered walls and telephone poles since the dawn of Punk – a period highlighted by his brief stint as the original bassist for Black Flag.
Raymond’s work was a great gift, going far beyond the droll Rock & Roll iconography so painfully present at the time. His drawing embodied what my suburban friends and I believed to be the Punk ideal: unruly, snide and bleak. Even his draftsmanship wreaked of sarcasm and gloom. His output consisted entirely of drawings with captions.
During the Eighties he self-published close to one hundred photocopied collections of his grim renderings, as well as contributing politically-charged Serial Art to Exit magazine and producing a book of dynamic locomotive drawings. Nowadays he hangs his voluminous works on gallery walls throughout most of the free world. He tacks up his pieces by the hundred in salon style, sometimes putting one piece over another, obscuring both word and image and making the relationship (conversation) increasingly abstract.
In the last decade, Pettibon’s work has borrowed a less diplomatic and expedient tone. He’s thrown away his checkers and taken up chess. Where before his work seemed to emanate from the Cro-Magnon underpinnings of Punk, he has now taken on a lyrical glow which attributes to the literary luminaries William Faulkner, Marcel Proust and James Joyce.
Only a few years ago Sonic Youth convinced Raymond to decorate their Goo LP. Despite the great difference between what emanated from the vinyl and what was said by the images on the cover, Pettibon’s work still felt abrasive and timely.
His image and word juxtapositions, though visually sparse in composition, seem heavy, manifesting themselves as question marks. Lyrically they stand as a testament to logic and speech in their purest states, frozen at the decisive moment before being polluted by the obscene vagaries of conversational speech.
SECONDS: A lot of people know you from the Xeroxed books you were distributing through SST.
PETTIBON: I didn’t distribute them through SST to any extent. I ended up destroying most of them. No, they never distributed anything if they could help it. I tried to keep some in print later. I just did thirty, forty copy editions and ended up giving ninety-nine percent of them away. Right now, there’s nothing in print, but I’m always planning on doing more when I get the time.
SECONDS: Are you going to collect them together?
PETTIBON: Yeah, part of it is to have the documentation evidence and to have a communicative value as well, rather than having them disappear into the ether.
SECONDS: Is it important that people see the books?
PETTIBON: Oh sure. Part of making art is you’re making it for somebody. It’s not done in a vacuum. Some work is problematic as far as reproduction and bookmaking and some is less so. A lot of my stuff tends to work just as well or better in book form. I always like the idea of making books …
SECONDS: From the older stuff, you get this tag on you about the comics influence but I’ve read that you’re not even a comics fan.
PETTIBON: No, I wouldn’t say that. My visual style is no doubt right out of comics. While learning to draw, the figures I looked at were people like Marsh, Hopper, the Ash Can School, the etching style, Goya, then also people like Milton Caniff.
SECONDS: Herriman, maybe? The Krazy Kat stuff?
PETTIBON: I love his work. I don’t know if that comes into my own stuff that much but I like him from afar. There’s some artists you may not even like whose work, for whatever reason, becomes an influence on your own. I think maybe the Caniff kind of school and the guy who uses to …what was his name? Frank Robbins, I like his style. Who else … this guy who used to draw for EC, Bernie Krickstein. Those are probably the primary ones. I’m not a comic fan so much. I love the form but I just don’t think there has been much done in it. I think the comics form is capable of a lot more than what’s been done in it. It should be as legitimate an art form as any but the problem is they don’t want to play on the same playing field as everyone else. On one hand, they’re bitter about being looked down upon by the rest of the art world, but when it comes down to it, they’re happy being in their own world and having their own standards. There’s an attractiveness to being ghettoized. Like any genre writers, they’re making a steady income putting out the same thing they’ve been doing over the years.
I never wanted to be a commercial artist and have some asshole art director for DC looking over my shoulder telling me what to do. I never wanted any part of that world, never thought about it without revulsion. The comics field is its own enclosed little world. It’s just a slacker, jack-off mentality of people who know what they want. They’re the kind of people who are into what they themselves call bad films. They have this inverse high-low kind of thing that they celebrate.
SECONDS: That whole concept caught on a little too heavily. People are going out and watching a movie just because they think it’s bad.
PETTIBON: I haven’t been able to get through a comic book or so-called bad movie. The whole camp thing, looking down on something … if that’s their whole life, they can’t get anything out of the other end.
SECONDS: Something like poetics – how deep does that run in everyday life?
PETTIBON: It depends on what you by poetics. I don’t set-up these hierarchies, either. What I mean is that there’s a certain type of person who break them down just to celebrate garbage. I can appreciate Rap music, I think there’s great writing in Rap and other forms outside of academic poetry. You have poets writing for poets and that’s always been the complaint. Every generation looks down on the previous generation with its apocalyptic vision like everything is going down the gutter, and it’s not true. Things always revive. Good things are always going on. It’s not that bad.
SECONDS: What do you find more powerful, the drawn image or the written word?
PETTIBON: I guess the written word can work graphically within your own mind but my work’s always been weighted more towards the words. I don’t think there’s any question.
SECONDS: With the lettering you’re doing, it seems like the words are fighting for control. Do you ever see yourself doing something with just words and no images?
PETTIBON: I’ve done that before. There’s usually some formal reason behind it that calls attention to itself as words without images. I also do writing of other sorts where I’m not dependent on visual images. In the work we’re talking about, it is art and it’s not that often that I can get away without the use of language. I wish I could more. They depend on each other.
SECONDS: Do you think you were made aware of words earlier than most because your father was a writer?
PETTIBON: I think that’s what it comes down to. I was always reading, although I was always drawing, too. It was just a part of my life. I was really the same person at five years old as I am now.
SECONDS: You can tell that?
SECONDS: When people are talking about your work, there always seems to be references to the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up techniques. I though your work was more automatic and more in a Surrealist manner.
PETTIBON: Surrealism really doesn’t touch much on my work. There’s cases where you could say it does. The actual physical cut-up technique – not really. I have done physical techniques, like I used to cut-up a rectangle and a Ouija board and roll it over the text of the page and you make associations that way. You can do it from one page to the next. I don’t know if that makes sense. There’s trickery like that. A lot that stuff is something you can just do in your head.
SECONDS: Freud said all automatic writing was the condensation of thought and words.
PETTIBON: Yeah, I can see that. Usually when I’ve done that, rather then being automatic writing of an expansive sort, it’s been more reductive. I think my later work depends more on longer sentences. All my work from the beginning has been directly related to reading that was putting yourself in the field of language until something comes out. Sometimes I would use phrases from it, and usually it’s between the lines.
SECONDS: You’re a real vivid reader, right?
PETTIBON: Well, it’s part of my work, fortunately, because I like doing it.
SECONDS: It seems that over the years your stuff has become more cryptic. Do you see your later work as more open to interpretation?
PETTIBON: Probably not. I think if I brought you through the work you’d see what I was trying to get at. You can say it’s open-minded, whatever, but it’s never a random association between the language and the image. There’s always a reason.
SECONDS: Do they occur at the same time or do you have drawings sitting around that you add the words onto later?
PETTIBON: I do both. I used to always start with the words – the thought. Now, I start with the image.
SECONDS: It seems like you’re mocking formal speech because a lot of the poetics are so over-the-top.
PETTIBON: I wouldn’t say I’m mocking it, I just like that kind of high Modernist, Seventeenth Century …what some people would call purple prose. If it’s expressed through the mouth of Vavoom or Gumby, that might be comic element to some people. That’s cool – I’m glad people think it’s funny.
SECONDS: It seems reality is secondary with you.
PETTIBON: Escapism is letting the narrator bring you along and manipulate you without your conscious knowledge of it. Reading, to me is not escapism at all – it’s the complete opposite.
SECONDS: Manson has shown up in a lot of your stuff.
SECONDS: What does he represent to you? Of course, there’s the classic image of Manson and what he means to Middle America …
PETTIBON: That image of Manson doesn’t have any interest to me. Manson is someone who’s an original exegesis of The Bible and The Beatles. He takes this blank piece of work, The White Album, and by the time he’s through with it, it’s blood red. He’s taking these Rock lyrics and making apocalyptic importance out of them. The Bible as well, The Book Of Revelations … everything’s open to interpretation. That’s the way Manson works and that’s why he’s an important figure to me.
SECONDS: You had a lot of tie-ins to Punk. How do you feel about your work on the Black Flag and Minutemen covers?
PETTIBON: Well, I just knew these people. They asked for work and I did it. It was really such a minimal thing. It really wasn’t anything of what I did.
SECONDS: No one ever told you what pieces to do, right?
PETTIBON: Not when I could help it. Unfortunately, that tends to come up because everyone thinks they’ve got great ideas. I managed to shy away from it whenever I could. There’s a few abominations where you’re backed into a corner, but otherwise …
SECONDS: Do you think you’re asking a lot from the viewer? Do you think your work is demanding?
PETTIBON: Do you mean morally?
PETTIBON: I’m not making any demands of people. I would if art had the ability to do that with authority, but that’s highly doubtful with the debasement of art in this country. Art is the last place anyone is going to derive their inspiration from.
SECONDS: How about demanding visually? Do you hope to exhaust the viewer?
PETTIBON: Not really. The way I look at it, there’s no contract with the viewer the way a professor assigns a certain amount of pages to the student. I’m not making any demands on the viewer. I don’t have a crusade about that. The gallery audience is not a captive audience like in music or theater. There’s been shows before where you have this palpable resentment between the audience and myself. Just walk out. I’m not expecting anything from anyone. For one thing, I’m working where even the crassest pulp book takes at least a few hours to read – and people are complaining that it takes more than ten minutes to look at a show of mine? Here I am, considering large bodies of work into small fragments and it’s as if I’m making demands. The whole thing is absurd. If someone is interested in my work, maybe some people go back a few times. That’s nice but I don’t have to know about it. It’s not an issue with me. When I read art reviews, it’s like reading restaurant reviews. The whole show is reviewed as if it’s set up with an appetizer … whatever. I like the idea of being able to do shows of a few works, that’s cool too. The show in New York I didn’t have any hand in.
SECONDS: You didn’t hang that one?
PETTIBON: No. I didn’t make the decisions of what to show. There’s stuff I would have preferred not to, there’s ways I would have done it different … sometimes it works better just to let someone else do it. If there’s any complaints, maybe it’s from an art student whose assignment was to go look at the show and make notes on every piece.
SECONDS: How do you perceive your own show?
PETTIBON: Usually, I try to just dismiss it. I think it’s an expression of love – that’s what’s behind it for me. Anything less is not worth all the years of twenty-four-hour days three hundred sixty-five days a year. Nothing else would compensate for all of that.