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 for 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 range of associations.
Untitled (Like a Gumdrop) is a pen and ink drawing dominated by a blue-tinted cartoon character shaped like a long, curved gumdrop or an upturned slug with rudimentary arms on which it props itself up. Pettibon has given it a face and the suggestion of long hair like a mane extending down its back; the long hair and eyelashes indicate that the character is female. 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, which reads ‘like a gumdrop...’ enclosed in inverted commas as though quoting from elsewhere. All the text is in red ink. Below the title words, the image is enclosed in a rectangular box. The gumdrop looks up and sideways towards a phallic arrow veering out of the box edge towards her. The words ‘Prickle! If you want to be a prick, I’ll show you a diller of a pickle!’ appear to be addressed by the gumdrop to the arrow. The ‘diller’ may refer to the comedienne Phyllis Diller (born 1918) who often spoke of her fictional husband ‘Fang’ in her stand up act. Pettibon’s drawing Untitled (Oscar Meyer Wishes...) (Tate L02282) names Fang as one of the macho rock star phalluses encircling the drawing’s main female protagonist. Lower down on the page, the arrow addresses the gumdrop as ‘Goo’. The words ‘Goo’, turn to goo, Goo!’ evoke baby-talk and also a melting sweet.
‘Prickle’ and ‘Goo’ are characters from the American television animation series based on the green clay humanoid character Gumby, that was screened on television in the 1950s and 60s, and revived in the 1980s. Created by Art Clokey, Gumby had several friends, including Goo, a blue mermaid-like blob, and Prickle, a yellow dinosaur. Pettibon has used the character Gumby repeatedly in his drawings. In two works made in 1991, We are Sculptors and Pose! The Command... (both Sammlung Rudolf Zwirner, Cologne), Gumby appears with Goo, whom he claims to have created and to direct. In both these works, Pettibon plays on the relationship between an artist and his creation as well as gender stereotypes. The relationships between men and women are a recurring theme in his drawings. In Like a Gumdrop, Goo reflects: ‘It’s at times like these when men are such blockheads!’ and ‘Men are such dinosaurs!’ parodying cartoon clichés from the 1950s and 60s at the same time as playing on the characters of the Gumby cartoon.
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, pp.86-7
Raymond Pettibon: The Pages Which Contain Truth Are Blank, exhibition catalogue, Muzeion, Bozen and Galleria D’Arte Moderna, Bologna 2003