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Drawn to Words : Pairing sketches with texts, Raymond Pettibon keeps his art between the lines--where his mother could find it

June 16, 1991|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA | Hunter Drohojowska is chair, department of liberal arts and sciences, Otis / Parsons School of Art & Design.

It's no wonder that the art world took a while to catch on to Raymond Pettibon. What does one make of images picturing iconic figures as disparate as Gumby and Babe Ruth, paired with musings on the repressive nature of television or poetic exhortations to greatness?

His simple ink drawings and paintings are combined with texts of his own words and those borrowed from such writers as James Joyce, Henry James and John Ruskin. The absurd and sublime, the sacred and profane, the enduring themes of art history and literature are delivered with the economy, and sometimes the appearance, of a comic strip.

"Originally, I was learning to draw from the etchings of John Sloan, Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper, Goya and Rembrandt," Pettibon says. "In the back of my mind was always the idea of reproduction. I was never too into comic books, but I like the style. It's shorthand for depicting reality in a way that practically everyone can understand. I know that drawing is not my strong point. I'm trying to do my best, though. I'm not trying to make 'bad' art. It's a challenge to see if I can make art of such feeble sources."

Pettibon is an artist's artist. In the competitive and cutthroat art world, an unusual number of his colleagues speak of him with admiration and generosity. And now, his ongoing dialogue between the pathetic and the heroic are gaining the attention of more than a few cognoscenti. Pettibon says, "I always knew that as the work went on, it would get harder and harder to ignore what I was doing."

This summer, he will be showing at galleries in Cologne, Nice and Milan. In Los Angeles, his paintings and drawings are included--along with works by Mark Heresy and Richard Roehl--in a group exhibition titled "Dangerous," currently at the Richard/Bennett Gallery.

There are a couple of reasons why Pettibon, who began showing his work here in 1981, is getting noticed. For good or bad, they have to do with the success of a few friends. Mike Kelley, long regarded as an underground darling of the local art world, has achieved overdue critical and commercial success. His use of visual and literal conventions drawn from the subcultures of society, along with an involvement with punk rock, parallels that of Pettibon.

Their interests have been so close and, in some cases collaborative, that critics have mistakenly thought the artists influenced one another. In fact, both had developed their idiosyncratic styles independently and before they ever met. But Kelley's sales and exhibition record of the last year have undoubtedly helped the art world accept Pettibon.

In addition, Pettibon has garnered kudos this year for his cover of the newest Sonic Youth album, "Goo." Bassist Kim Gordon, who went from conceptual art to music via the New York art band circuit, has been a longtime admirer of Pettibon's art. She had written about Kelley, Pettibon and performance artist Tony Oursler for Artforum 10 years ago.

The album covers and posters that Pettibon did for the punk band Black Flag in the early '80s initially got Kelley's attention too. (Pettibon's oldest brother, Greg Ginn, was a founder of the band as well as of the independent label SST.) What impressed Kelley was that these images were not commercial illustration--they were pre-existing art.

"He was dealing with these subcultures and ideologies in a serious way," recalls Kelly. "They were about carrying the expectations of ideology and history, but with a twist, making it dysfunctional so you have to take responsibility for the reading. Like my early work, he was using a form that was invisible to the art world who saw it as cartoons. It's more about conventions. It's not about the transposition from low to high art--like Pop art was. It's more obviously about quotation."

For Pettibon, the associations with punk rock are uncomfortable. Hudson, whose Feature gallery in New York is currently showing the artist's drawings, remembers that he first noticed Pettibon's work on the Black Flag albums, but points out that the music world has not supported the artist in terms of sales. Hudson notes that members of Sonic Youth talk about Pettibon on MTV and come to his openings, but such notoriety can backfire. The art establishment has been somewhat aloof. Until now.

Hudson explains Pettibon's growing popularity, saying he "addresses the image and text syndrome but without the baggage of the cult of CalArts. The gap between meaning and non-meaning that constitutes his work is one of the goals of many artists today. His work has a strong conceptual base but the making is involved with the hand, so there is a poetic aspect to it.

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