Born Raymond Ginn in Tucson, Arizona, Pettibon was raised in Los Angeles, California where he completed a BA in Economics at the University of California in 1977. As a student he drew political cartoons for the college paper, The Daily Bruin; after leaving university he taught maths at the local high schools and began designing record covers and flyers for the punk band Black Flag, in which his brother Gregory Ginn was the lead guitarist, as well as the bands Minutemen and Sonic Youth. In 1978 he set up the magazine Tripping Corpse, providing himself with a platform to express the post-1960s political disillusion he and many of his generation had developed. He refined these attitudes and his personal style during the 1980s, creating a blend of image and text which, although superficially derived from cartoons, invokes more complex levels of meaning through juxtapositions and deliberate ambiguity. In the 1960s, with such works as Whaam! 1963 (Tate T00897), American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97) appropriated the visual language of cartoons, scaling them up to make large paintings that combine image and text with benday dots referring to the mechanical process of printing. Pettibon’s work, by contrast, is largely paper-based, hand-drawn and intimate in scale. The words, phrases and sentences Pettibon uses are derived from literary texts, proverbial expressions and period turns of phrase. They refer to aspects of the social and political landscape of the United States from the 1950s onwards, as well as referencing clichés of Cinema Noir. Initially, the text component in his drawings was small, constituting a caption or simple comment. From the mid-eighties it became increasingly large, introducing the voice of more than one commentator and combining many more diverse elements into one page. Newspaper photographs, television and video and film stills have all contributed to Pettibon’s imagery; the relationship between image and text throws up a wide range of associations.
A Vision of a Future Race of Man is a pen and ink drawing dominated by the image of a blue elephant, the size of a large dog, being carried by a very hairy man. They are framed inside a rectangular outline which, nearly filling the page, crops the man’s body at the shoulders and shins so that neither his head nor feet are visible. The drawing is undated; its complex structure – which combines several speaking ‘voices’, in red and black, around an image on a single page – suggests that it was made in the late 80s or early 1990s. As is common in Pettibon’s drawings, the work’s title is taken from the first line of text at the top of the paper. It is followed by the words: ‘the generating principle of which is their joy in the world as it is given them and their sense of brotherhood as “men that perish”’. At the bottom of the page, the words in red: ‘if nothing else the elephant will not forget me’ refer to the cliché that ‘elephants never forget’. Words on either side of the man’s shoulders are comments which appear to have been spoken by him but which could equally have been be spoken by the elephant. This is a frequent device in Pettibon’s drawings creating a comic double-take for the viewer. The man’s extreme hairiness – that makes him appear more ape than man – allies him closely with the elephant in his arms. The absence of the man’s head disempowers him, while the reflective expression on the elephant’s face suggests that the words on the paper are thoughts in his head. The text inside the rectangle reads: ‘A zoo? Give me an arc-full one by one’; ‘For giving something back to those I leave behind. That or else come with me...’; ‘The position that’s most fitting will do us both.’ Evoking fragments of lines spoken in a fictional film, the words provide a comic subversion of clichéd macho heroism, making man and elephant brothers.
Dennis Cooper, Robert Storr, Ulrich Loock, Raymond Pettibon, London 2001
Ulrich Loock, Raymond Pettibon, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bern and 14/16 Verneuil – Marc Blondeau, Paris 1995
Raymond Pettibon: The Pages Which Contain Truth Are Blank, exhibition catalogue, Muzeion, Bozen and Galleria D’Arte Moderna, Bologna 2003