Brought to life in graphic pen and ink, two characters are captured from a film still; dramatic, cross-hatched shadows are worked intensely, the ink even running feverishly down the page. Looming from the left of the diagonal composition, a man in an overcoat administers an injection to a seated man in his shirt-sleeves, with a haggard, desperate countenance. Playing off this macabre scene are lines of oblique text. Above: “You reach out in vain for something to compare your unsatisfied senses. You liken it perhaps to a lunch made savourless for lack of salt or to a picture, say, where the canvas shows, in the very middle, a fine blank space. It’s the aesthetic appetite in you—long richly fed elsewhere—that goes unassuaged.” In small font, between the characters as if whispered: “If you’re the man with the golden arm, I’m Tiffany.” Below: “That’s the Frankie I knew.” While gesturing towards the narrative form of the comic strip, Raymond Pettibon’s ingenious interplay of word and image is far from straightforward. He mixes quotation with his own writing and rewriting, chiming with the depths and contradictions of the American psyche. Fiction and non-fiction mingle: a quote from Henry James’s 1907 The American Scene—here a vivid realisation of the American void, in which James attempts to express the sense of emptiness he feels upon visiting Washington—are subtly altered. The other lines, as well as the illustrated scene, are taken from the 1955 movie The Man with the Golden Arm, based on Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel of the same name: Frank Sinatra plays heroin addict Frankie Machine, who struggles to stay clean after his release from prison. This combination of ambiguous identity, cerebral Victorian prose and noir cinema brings together some of the most important aspects of Pettibon’s revolutionary artistic idiom, forming a deeply suggestive and tantalisingly incomplete poetry of word and image.
Although he is often associated with the nihilistic milieu of seventies and eighties punk music for his iconic Black Flag album covers, Pettibon’s chimeric intertextuality deals with a far wider and deeper cross section of cultural history. A profoundly erudite reader, his investigations into language and image draw from myriad sources—particularly, he says, “the great prose writers, like Henry James and Proust and Ruskin and Pater. And Thomas Browne. If you read them you’ll come across quite a bit…they’re very elaborate, and the sentence structure can elaborate itself into very long paragraphs. But in a fragmentary way. Their work, taken out of context, can mean something completely different, and at the same time it’s so beautifully said” (R. Pettibon, quoted in J. Lewis, “A Conversation with Raymond Pettibon,” Parkett 47, 1996, p. 58). The present work is a case in point: James’s lines of fin-de-siècle aesthetic anomie take on a new light when framing the vignette of heroin addiction, and vice versa. The words of the “great prose writer” and the hardboiled filmic dialogue spark off one another, illuminating what might be a universal malaise lying in the depths of the American soul. The overall tableau is haunted by a sense of loss, absence or elision: while the phrases chosen are resonant and shrewdly evocative, they speak perhaps most of all of the gulf between author and reader, representation and subject. We chase a totality of meaning as elusive as the addict’s next high.
Discussing his use of Henry James, Pettibon describes an affinity with the author in his multifaceted approach to words and to the world. “James, especially later in his career, had such a complicated mind. He was writing in a narrative form, but he couldn’t for the life of him look at the simplest thing without looking at it from many different views. He always writes out of an inner struggle between the dramatic form and narrative, and this wealth of ideas and information that’s imploding in each sentence. …The criticism of him is that it isn’t real, that it’s all mannerism, but it does mimic thought patterns. To me that’s its appeal. I mean, people have always said that about me, too, you know, you don’t want to get me started, I can’t stick to the facts or the starting point without adding another tangent that I have to go off on. But I think that’s a mimicking of the complexity of thought and reality, and the relationship between the two, more than anything else. Whereas, to pretend to tell a simple story and tie everything up at the end is actually wrong, really. It’s dishonest” (R. Pettibon, quoted in J. Lewis, “A Conversation with Raymond Pettibon, ” Parkett 47, 1996, pp. 58-60). In the open-ended nature of his work, then, Pettibon sees an authentic reflection of the difficult dialectic between “thought and reality”; indeed, for all their sidelong mystique, dark subcultural pools and elusive associations, there is an immediate power to his compositions that the viewer can respond to: this is how it feels to think about the world around us.
Pettibon disavows personal expression, portraying himself as an alchemist of external information. “It’s kind of like swimming in words and letters. I place myself in this state of consciousness where I’m receptive to associations and stuff…[my work] always had to do with reading things from the world at large – media, television, music, books – rather than being personal or anecdotal” (R. Pettibon, quoted in “Dennis Cooper in conversation with Raymond Pettibon, ” in R. Storr, et. al., Raymond Pettibon, London 2001, p. 8). He characterizes his distinctive film noir timber as similarly reflexive, born from received imagery: “the drawings are kind of like video stills; for a while I used to actually draw them from the video screen, by pausing a tape, usually some movie or something. I think that’s how my style arose; it was kind of unintentional on my part, the film noir aspect of it” (R. Pettibon, quoted in J. Lewis, “A Conversation with Raymond Pettibon,” Parkett 47, 1996, p. 58). In all his sidestepping of artistic responsibility, however, Pettibon’s work remains unmistakably his own. He is an oracle of unforeseen connections, creating a polyvocal voice as pointed as it is diffusive. We are faced with the myths and mechanics of reading and seeing, finding hints of the unexpressed and inexpressible therein. Surfing across styles, structures and syntax, narrative coherence remains out of reach, our desire for closure unassuaged. But our senses are hardly unsatisfied: in his powerful fusion of image and text, we are free to delight in Pettibon’s acute sense for raw lyricism and the fugitive, contingent motions of thought itself.