Art Is Not a Four-Letter Word... | Post No Bills | Chicago Reader

September 10, 1998 Music | Post No Bills

Art Is Not a Four-Letter Word... 

Raymond Pettibon/ ...But Punk Is

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Art Is Not a Four-Letter Word . . .

Ask an underground-music fan if he knows the name Raymond Pettibon and he may well say no; show him the sleeves to seminal SST releases like the Minutemen's What Makes a Man Start Fires? or Black Flag's Slip It In, both distinguished by Pettibon's bold, wordy drawings, and he'll almost certainly say, "Oh, that guy." The work that appeared on SST album covers, which was some of Pettibon's earliest, displayed a caustic black humor and a fascination with late-60s counterculture (particularly the Manson family saga) that sat well with punk rockers. But punk rockers didn't sit well with Pettibon, and to this day any mention of his punk-rock past raises his hackles. "To be asked about punk rock is ridiculous," he told another interviewer. "It just reflects the position of the person who asks it. In the last ten years, all the openings I've gone to, anyone who has seen or been interested in my work, none of them has been a punk rocker."

The self-taught Pettibon, 41, has been taken seriously in the art world for well over his allotted 15 minutes. In just the last year his work was included in the Whitney Biennial Exhibition and in a collection of contemporary drawings at New York's Museum of Modern Art; in the last decade he's had solo shows in Switzerland, Italy, Germany, France, Sweden, Austria, Luxembourg, and Scotland. This weekend he'll speak at the opening of his first major U.S. retrospective, which starts at Chicago's Renaissance Society, then travels to the Drawing Center in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art back home in LA, where he lives with his parents.

Like his older brother, Black Flag guitarist and SST cofounder Greg Ginn, Pettibon (the surname was originally a nickname given him by his father) has a degree in economics from UCLA, but by the time he graduated, in 1977, he'd lost interest in the field. While in school he'd grown increasingly interested in art, and the next year SST published a thick collection called Captive Chains, nearly 100 cheap, 20-to-30-page fanzine-style books of Pettibon's drawings.

He started showing his work in galleries in 1981, but far more people saw the reproductions used on album covers and gig flyers--exposure Pettibon says hurt more than it helped. "I took an ad out in Slash magazine for my first book and I got one order," he says. "All the punk rockers I knew were intensely dismissive of anything to do with art. To them it was a four-letter word and it was only used in the context of something like 'art fag' or 'arty.' It was the worst insult you could give somebody.

"The truth is, my work wasn't acknowledged as anything worthwhile to any degree by those people. Whenever I did flyers for SST I'd tell them over and over, 'Could you please just make a copy and then do all your pasteup garbage?' and it just fell on deaf ears. My work was completely vandalized, treated like it had no intrinsic value whatsoever. And--though this is completely irrelevant to me because I never wanted it or expected it--I was literally never paid one cent for anything I ever did for them."

Pettibon hasn't been in contact with Ginn since 1985, but he hasn't completely severed his ties to the rock world either. His four videos, pointedly amateurish hand-camera features filled with the same socially charged dialogue and non sequiturs as his drawings, are distributed by Provisional, a company run by former SST employee Joe Carducci; they star former SST musicians like Mike Watt, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Moore as well as fellow artist Mike Kelley. He drew the cover for Sonic Youth's Geffen debut, Goo, in 1990, and he says he remains a fan of the music.

Although he's worked more with color lately, Pettibon's retrospective is dominated by his rough but elegant black-and-white ink drawings, influenced by underground comics and married with chunks of text--some borrowed from writers like Henry James, John Ruskin, and Marcel Proust and some original. The text is often what makes the drawings more than aesthetically pleasing doodles. "His importance has much to do with his limpid mastery of English...," Peter Schjeldahl wrote of Pettibon in the Village Voice last November. "Like the poetry of John Ashbery, his work skirts communication at a stable distance of beautifully poised tone and supple syntax. His writing satisfies every sense except the common kind."

As they often have been elsewhere, at the Renaissance Society Pettibon's drawings--about 550 of them--will be presented in claustrophobic clusters that encourage the viewer to contemplate connections between them. "If you read War and Peace or even a pulp mystery novel you're expected to give it a certain number of hours," says Pettibon. "The visual art experience has a completely different attention span. In that environment this is almost like breaking the three-minute mile."

The exhibit, which runs through November 8 at the Renaissance Society (in Cobb Hall at the University of Chicago, 5811 S. Ellis), kicks off with a reception from 4 to 7 PM Sunday; Pettibon's talk starts at 5. Call 773-702-8670 for more info.


The Bristol trio Smith & Mighty, a rarely acknowledged progenitor of the aesthetic that produced Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead, and Roni Size, makes a rare DJ appearance Sunday at 10 PM in the Smart Bar; expect a hazy flow of trip-hop, hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, and dub similar to the mix on the trio's recent contribution to the Studio K7 label's "DJ-Kicks" series.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Raymond Pettibon photo by Gary Leonard/ artwork sample.


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