Local Vantage

EVERY TABLE IN THE LARGE, rectangular space is piled high with paints, India ink, brushes, half-finished drawings, and mangled books. There must be hundreds of works scattered throughout Raymond Pettibon’s New York studio—some drawings on notebook-size paper stacked haphazardly on the paint-splattered floor, others large-scale paintings hanging on the wall: the Statue of Liberty, a Babe Ruth–era baseball player, a noir-ish woman smoking a cigarette, and, of course, a tiny surfer in the maw of a massive wave.


Born in 1957 and raised in Hermosa Beach, California, Pettibon had a childhood filled with books, comics, baseball, and surfing. When his older brother, Greg Ginn (Pettibon is a nom de plume), formed a band, Pettibon suggested the name Black Flag. He also designed their now-famous logo—a stylized rendering of four offset black bars—and a slew of album covers.


Pettibon started publishing zines of his drawings and his writing, with titles like Tripping Corpse, The Language of Romantic Thought, and Virgin Fears. For much of the next decade, he remained decidedly underground, exhibiting in small galleries and record stores. But as his work evolved, so did his audience. In the mid-’80s, a handful of renowned L.A. artists embraced Pettibon, with a number of collectors and curators following suit. Soon he would occupy almost contradictory posts: a bona fide global art star and a DIY punk rock icon. His work was similarly contradictory, taking aim at subject matter like Charles Manson, Gumby, J. Edgar Hoover, Elvis Presley, and big-wave surfers.


Pettibon honed a unique style that hinges upon the marriage of striking imagery and oblique text. But his creativity isn’t limited to paper and canvas. In casual conversation, he likes to make stuff up. At a dinner in New York a few years ago, Pettibon sat across the table from me, next to a man he’d just met. Over the course of the meal, Pettibon and the man engaged in deep conversation. When Pettibon left, the man turned to me.


“That guy I sat next to was incredible,” he said.


“How so?” I asked.


“He’s a dog breeder,” the man said. “Pit bulls that fight to the death in these highly illegal dogfights. There’s this whole underground culture, and apparently he’s one of the top breeders.”


This wasn’t the first time that I’d heard of Pettibon the Fabulist. He’s notorious for plunging into any number of alter egos: East L.A. dog breeder, Spanish bullfighter, Mexican wrestler, Hawaiian big-wave surfer. He’ll improvise, meticulously fleshing out these imagined lives as he goes.


When I met with Pettibon on a gray April morning in Lower Manhattan, he played the part of himself, painting in his studio and looking comfortable in red plaid pajama bottoms and a powder-blue T-shirt. We walked through the space, across a floor covered with unfinished collages that he was not afraid to step on, eventually stopping in front of a half-finished surf painting: a giant sapphire barrel with a small goofyfoot surfer streaking through it, head cocked slightly to the side, arms outstretched.


The image reminded me of a story about the 19th-century English painter William Turner, who famously had himself tied to the mast of a steam ship during a storm in an effort to experience the natural power of the ocean. Today that would seem a bit excessive, especially considering that, with a little imagination, you can scream across the face of a 30-foot wave from the comfort of a Manhattan studio.

No Title (You Compel Us)

What interests you the most about surfing?


Growing up in Hermosa Beach, it was part of my life, whether intimately or tangentially. It was part of the culture. I had the posters. I used to read SURFER and Surfing magazine, and stories about Greg Noll at Makaha. But I was stuck; I didn’t even have a car. I lived a mile and a half from the beach, and when you’re dependent on Hermosa Beach waves, how many good days are there? Not many. But I surfed some. I grew up really poor. I used to beg my parents for a surfboard, and they’d always use the excuse, “Well, it’s too dangerous.” And that was because that was too much money to spend on a kid. The last time I was in California, I had a house a half a block from the beach in Venice, which is kind of like Hermosa Beach; if it gets above 2 or 3 feet, it closes out. There are some spots—the breakwater, or even the pier. Up north there’s Malibu, down south there’s El Porto, Haggerty’s, and Palos Verdes. But unless you’re part of the family, it’s a rat race. There’s a social situation in surfing where unless you’re born into it, or on the inside, then move on. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to the surfing lifestyle, because it’s all encompassing, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


It seems like you’ve managed to depict surfing in a heightened way that captures the feeling of the experience more than the reality of it.


I actually think I’m more of a realist than that in my artwork, but maybe I do blow up the culture of surfing. There are two kinds of surfing in my work: there’s big-wave surfing, and then there’s the kind of locker-room jock culture that exists when you’re changing out of your wetsuit in the parking lot. Big-wave surfing is of epic proportions. It has to do with what you call The Sublime, going back to Edmund Burke. It has to do with making artwork about nature at its most epic, its most ferocious. Like Caspar David Friedrich, Frederic Edwin Church, and Turner. Big-wave surfing separates itself from the parking lot and flashing some Gidget, changing out of your trunks. In the lineup, it’s between you and the wave; that separates the men from the boys, it separates Greg Noll from Fabian. I used to have dreams—almost nightmares—of waves that were so big, and being caught inside. It was like a washing machine, and as far as you could dive down, you still get your eyes full of sand and you’re still being tossed and turned. It’s been many years since I’ve had those dreams and nightmares. I don’t dream much anymore, but that one was recurrent.


There’s so much great imagery in the surf world—both still and moving images. When you’re making surf paintings, are you working from anything specific in the back of your head, or are you trying to imagine something entirely new?


I don’t draw from a photo. I never learned the skills by drawing from nature, or models. On the other hand, I think it’s good to have some reference as a starting point at least, rather than recalling from your dreams or your imagination or your history. Every surf drawing or painting of mine is different from the last. I’m trying to find something new in it as I start it, and then there are fits and starts, and you’re trying to work yourself out of that hole. But I could do 10 surf drawings a day if I wanted to. Working big is actually easier than working small. I’m still learning each time I pick up the brush or the pen. And starting with a blank canvas or paper, I don’t have it all in my mind.

No Title (It Was Big)

What comes first, the image or the text?


It can be either. It’s not like I need to have this vision of the final thing in my head beforehand. I can start with a wave, or whatever the image is, and I have the confidence that I can make something out of it with the words. And the words are something I depend on; I don’t think my wave paintings would be of much interest without the words.


It seems like the text in your work really gives the reader something to grab onto. It pulls you in deeper.


Yes. I think that’s done with respect to the reader or the viewer. There is a lyrical space between myself and my prospective audience. There’s not a strict summing up of the idea like there is in a cartoon with a punch line. But even cartoons are open to interpretation. Some people think the text part of my work is all done randomly. That’s not the case at all. I have something in mind that I’m talking toward, or about. But it’s not a message you’re supposed to get at a glance.


Do you find that creative energy hard to shut off? If you’re working on a piece, does it follow you home at night?


I don’t know if it works within that time frame, but you see all these works in progress here; I don’t stop working on things until they leave my hands and go out into the world. They’re not always done in one sitting at the drawing board—they can be many years in the making—so it becomes a conversation that goes back and forth until I run out of room to add anything. The words get so tiny that you’d need a microscope to read them. My favorite thing is the writing, although I hate to separate the two because they’re dependent on each other. They’re married, so why split up?


In your surf paintings, is there something that you’re trying to get at that you haven’t been able to articulate yet?


I never thought about that. I know that in the surf world there are surfers going to places nowadays no one would have imagined you could surf back in the days of Phil Edwards at Pipeline, or Greg Noll at Makaha. When you’re depicting surfing waves, scale does matter. With an 8.5 × 11", you can say a lot about surfing. But I’m kind of constrained by the size of the paper rolls, and I don’t think it would make a hell of a lot of difference to work on an epic scale. The important part happens in your mind.

No Title (Lost There In)