Raymond Pettibon's work embraces a wide spectrum of American "high" and "low" culture, from the deviations of marginal youth to art history, literature, sports, religion, politics, and sexuality. Taking their points of departure in the Southern California counter-movement of the late 1960s, the punk-rock cultures that formed in the late 1970s and 1980s, and the "do-it-yourself" aesthetic of album covers, comics, concert flyers, and fanzines, his drawings have come to occupy their own genre of potent and dynamic artistic commentary.
Born in 1957, Pettibon grew up on the California West Coast, where he still lives today. He developed his easily-recognizable visual style in the late 1970s and while it could be said that his subject matter has become increasingly politically-inspired, his approach and technique have remained constant for several decades. His obsessively worked drawings often incorporate text borrowed from literature and other media, as well as the artist's own original writings, and the artist considers text as vital to his process as the drawn image. There is frequently a sarcastic and humoristic element to his narratives, whereby the text lends a staccato and sometimes impairing voice to his various subjects, whether sport stars, celebrities, politicians, policemen, or anonymous American citizens.
Yet while there is always a narrative behind Pettibon's work, punchlines and single meanings seldom surface. The artist's use of language is more accurately a reaction and antidote to mainstream journalistic jargon-a unique form of contemporary image-infused poetry that drills deep into the American psyche. As more text has been incorporated into his drawings over the years, they have in turn become increasingly painterly and colorful. Drawing with an urgency rarely matched by his contemporaries, Pettibon continues a tradition of cultural commentary exemplified by artists such as Francisco Goya and Honoré Daumier in the late 18th and 19th centuries. His talented draftsmanship, combined convincingly with the cartoonlike, economical style of his representations, speaks swiftly and freely about contemporary culture.
In No Title (But the sand...), a wave of gigantic proportions forms a high, foamy peak against a flat, dark-blue ocean with no land visible on the horizon. Multicolored surfboards without their riders are caught in free-fall down the side of the wave. A text is inscribed at the bottom-left: "But the sand or clay to which by one or the other process we are reducible are turned to glass and foam."
Popular American sports like baseball, basketball, and surfing occupy much of Pettibon's oeuvre, but their inclusion within his work has more to do with their mythological signifiers than with a personal obsession. On surfing, more specifically, Pettibon has noted that his interest is to a large degree visual, despite having grown up near the California coast. "It can also be the way something like surfing describes a society, and the people in it. I've done a lot of large drawings and prints of that imagery. It has that epic nature, that sublime nature, that almost asks you to reproduce it full sized on the wall."
Similar to No Title (From life to) which is included on pages 14-17,No Title (But the sand...) presents one of Pettibon's largest works on paper with this subject matter. In an eerie comment on the observable reality that surfing as a sport benefits from high waves caused by distant, often devastating tsunamis, Pettibon's text abstains from glorifying the sport. Coupled with the visually striking wave, composed of innumerous thick strokes varying in intensity and hue, his work can be seen as a sublime, graphic snapshot of the unfolding drama.
1 Raymond Pettibon, "Dennis Cooper in conversation with Raymond Pettibon," in Raymond Pettibon (London: Phaidon Press, 2001), p. 25.