Raymond Pettibon: Are Your Motives Pure?

[No Title (It would glisten), 2010, Ink, gouache, and pen on paper, 40 1/4 x 59 1/2 inches]

Raymond Pettibon is an artist with a writer’s tendency and a musician’s sensibility. He’s known to collect pages of writings only to deconstruct the words, a hoarding habit that eventually reemerges itself as lyrical text loitering in his drawings.

Even without any familiarity of Pettibon’s work that hangs in galleries, his few pieces of commercial work are highly recognizable. Black Flag’s black bars logo has been appropriated in all forms of anti-establishment paraphernalia since Pettibon designed it in the seventies. From there he went on to draw the cover of Sonic Youth’s “Goo” in 1990 and more recently, skate punk Cerebral Ballzy’s self-titled album in 2011. This past spring a portrait of his dog, a shaggy Brussels griffon named Boo, made the cover of The Paris Review.

His work, in an overarching sense, explores marginal youth cultures in America, covering baseball players, teenage punks, soldiers, and surfers. Raised in Hermosa Beach, California, surfing was part of the fiber of the seedy Southern California scene Pettibon grew up in, a flavor that rubbed into his depictions of surfers, eventually creating a counterculture category that could be classified as 'Surfing Noir.' Each depiction is distinctly different in its existential perspective of a surfer on the brink. The onlooker is left facing the daunting question: Is the wave destined to consume him or, is this the ride of his life?

The show at Venus Over Manhattan presented the first exhibition focusing exclusively on Pettibon’s surfer paintings. Are Your Motives Pure? Raymond Pettibon Surfers 1987-2012, brought together forty works spanning a quarter century of the artist’s career, from early small-scale, monochrome India ink paintings, to a group of large-scale paintings measuring up to nearly 10 feet wide. 

The following interview took place over the phone in August, 2014, at the time of the Venus Over Manhattan show.

Chelsea Burcz: Let’s start off talking about your show at Adam Lindemann’s Venus Over Manhattan that happened this past spring, the one where you had your surfing related pieces shown together - how did that come about?

Raymond Pettibon: That was a part of a collection of Adam Lindemann. He had some of his own collection up, and some he borrowed from other collectors. I believe if I can remember correctly, I did a mural on the wall. It’s something I do anyway, [surfing is] a big part of my repertoire. We were bringing visibility to them, from the early ones to the late ones.

[No Title (The weight of), 1994, Ink and watercolor on paper, 13 7/8 x 10 13/16 inches]


[No Title (We have seen), 1987, Ink and pen on paper, 24 x 18 inches]


[No Title (Some things at sea), 2010, Gouache on paper, 41 x 36 inches]

CB: Was that the first time you’ve seen all of your surfing works in one room together like that?

RP: Yeah, it was the first time, though it’s not unusual for a show of mine to have a drawing or two. It’s an image I do fairly often -- actually less often than people assume because every one is much different than the previous one. It’s a challenge to extend oneself and to make it different, rather than just mechanically crank out the same types of work, which is very easy to do but what’s the point, really? It’s all very diverse as far as styles, and you can see early how some of the first surf drawings progressed or changed, or whatever, over the years.

[Raymond Pettibon working at David Zwirner on his 2013 solo show To Wit. Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath]

CB: Do you remember why you made your first surfing work?

RP: It wasn’t with the intention of doing another and another, or a series of them. It was just a subject in the culture that I grew up with, not anything else.

CB: What was particularly attractive about surfing as a culture that compelled you to return to it over and over?

RP: Well, there’s so much to say about it. Surfing slang, people changing in and out of their wetsuits in the parking lot! Then there’s the wave itself, which is more a part of the sublime, what we’d call nature. The difference between hotdoggin’ and big wave surfing is enormous, and some of the best small wave riders became some of the best big wave riders, as you’d expect. As the wave gets bigger it becomes more about man against nature. One doesn’t conquer either one. Man with nature, I guess. Small waves and big waves are different experiences.

CB: When you make work are you pulling from personal experience?

RP: With any of my work it’s rarely from my life or my experience. There’s likely to be some sort of connection, but it’s not something necessarily I live through, and in any individual case in the documentary of my life.

CB: Do you have a favorite surfer that your depicting in your work? Or a character? Is it specific to somebody or is it general?

RP: It depends. I try not to depend on photographs and then just do drawings of them. Sometimes particular surfers are mentioned, maybe Mickey Dora or Gidget if you’re thinking of the Malibu scene. There’s some people’s style who I like, I like that sort of soft shouldered look of the way Jeff Crawford, for instance, who used to surf the Pipeline, or Gerry Lopez. You’ll see quite a bit of that, the actual surfers, but it’s not just a picture taken from time, you don’t know what happens next necessarily. The guy makes the wave or sometimes the paint will draw into itself. Each idea is based on a particular surfer though. There’s Greg Noll, for instance -- these are mostly people from my childhood who stand out in my mind. The big barrel chested surfer compared to a scrawny looking Rob Machado, there’s all types of body types. But they’re not based literally on anyone in particular.

[No Title (Jacob's surf team), 1985, Ink and pen on paper, 12 x 9 inches]

 [No Title (What more could), 1997, Ink and watercolor on paper, 29 3/4 x 22 1/8 inches]

CB: Do you have memories of surfing when you were growing up? Do you have a first wave memory?

RP: I grew up mostly in Hermosa Beach and they used to have an annual surf contest there. They stopped having it because the waves would never break. It’s a beach break and it’s completely unreliable. When it gets big, it gets really hairy, except for certain breaks where there’s reefs or after storms when there’s sand bars. There are certain waves I remember; my family was so cheap and poor that they wouldn’t let me get a surfboard.

CB: I’m wondering if we could talk about music a little bit, I saw that you did the cover art for the punk band Cerebral Ballzy -- I went to college with a couple of them and went to some of their first shows.

RP: Oh yes, I’ve seen them a number of times.

CB: Are you still involved in the punk scene? Do you pay attention? Are you going to shows and things like that?

RP: Yeah, to some extent. Some people don’t have the maturity to go look at it from a distance, so you have people who dedicate their lives to punk rock, and they end up dying of overdoses or Sid Vicious is their hero -- and I don’t make a living by doing covers for punk bands, I mean I’ve rarely gotten paid for them and I don’t ask for money, actually. I probably do more covers now than I ever did. I wouldn’t call Cerebral Ballzy obscure, but they started out of a garage basically and they’re more skateboarders actually, I don’t think Honor and Melvin surf. Honor just came by my studio the other day and I try to keep in contact with them. They’re a really good band and so is Keith Morris and Steve McDonald in their band called Off!.

CB: Is music that’s something important to you?

RP: I don’t play it that much when I’m working because getting up and changing the record and all that is bothersome. I still go to jazz shows sometimes. I mean, I’m not interested in retreaded Wynton Marsalis but there’s still people around, ya know? You could play jazz into your nineties and it’s not an issue, whereas with rock ‘n’ roll, people like Pete Townshend or Mick Jagger, you want to be doing that by the time you’re thirty years old. New York is a great place for jazz. L.A. used to be but I don’t know if there’s any jazz left there. New York there’s a lot of everything.

[No Title (From which she), 2002, Ink and watercolor on paper, 24 x 18 inches]

CB: How long have you been living in New York?

RP: Maybe four years or so, I had a house in Venice but it was invaded by this family of squatters.

CB: Will there be more surfing images in the future?

RP: Like I said before, each one is it’s own particular challenge. This one is more calligraphic with lines and cross hatching and the next one, who knows? I don’t usually get an indication of how it’s going to look until I get involved with it for a while, there are times where you have to rethink it and start over. I do have a lot of material and I do have a lot more surfing drawings to do, I hope. It’s in so many ways a part of my life and as an image itself, and it’s a beautiful image when it’s done right. It’s just about the work itself.

- Words by Chelsea Burcz

Find more works by Raymond Pettibon via David Zwirner here

Find more info about Venus Over Manhattan here.

 [No Title (Outside! moondoggie was), 2013, Acrylic, gouache, and ink on paper, 22 1/4 x 25 1/2 inches]

 [No Title (Deeper above all), Ink, gouache, and pen on paper, 69 1/2 x 84 1/2 inches]

Below, covers for the Raymond Pettibon books we currently carry at Pilgrim Surf + Supply, grab yours before they're gone!