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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. 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. 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. Newspaper photographs, television and video and film stills have contributed to Pettibon’s imagery; the relationship between image and text throws up a wide range of associations.
Untitled (Oscar Meyer Wishes...) is a pen and ink drawing combining image and text in equal measure. Its complex structure – which combines several speaking ‘voices’, in red and black, around an image on a single page – suggests that it dates from the late 80s or early 1990s. As is frequent in Pettibon drawings, the title is taken from the first line of text at the top of the paper which reads: ‘Oscar Mayer [sic] wishes he could whistle this loud...’. This is a reference to the German immigrant Oscar Ferdinand Meyer who set up a meat production company in Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century, expanding to become a brand which is now part of the corporation Kraft Foods. His name is part of American popular culture, featuring in jingles about bologna and wiener, two classic American processed meat products. The central image is a naked woman climbing out of a square black hole, saying: ‘Brian? Can you come out to play?’. She is framed by a series of long, phallic pole-or column like objects extending down towards her like a ring of prison bars. Each is labelled with the name of a rock or pop musician from the 1960s and 70s, including ‘Fang’ the fictional husband of comedienne Phyllis Diller (born 1918) referred to in Pettibon’s drawing Untitled (Like a Gumdrop) 1991 (Tate L02283). The columns are echoed by a similar form in blue ink extending into the lower left corner of the page, partly concealed by a square containing another phallus, captioned ‘the real Paul’, drawn over it. Fragments of text dotted over the page make bawdy references to microphones, meat, size and ‘rock n’ roll’.
The pole-like phallus extending into the page from the margin, or from a hole, is a recurring image in Pettibon’s work. In Untitled (The Fragment Has...) 1986 (Regen Projects, Los Angeles) it is identified overtly as an erection but in other drawings, such as Untitled (Hiding Behind) 1990 (private collection) and Untitled (Well, I mean...) 1991 (Regen Projects, Los Angeles), it is coupled with captions which evoke a range of ambiguous readings. Pettibon has commented:
the phallic symbol to me could almost go across the board and be exchanged with the way I use the letter I ... There are very, very phallic writers and the most extreme to me is Henry James ... That’s like all he was ever writing about ... That’s something that I anyway can’t help seeing when reading his works, and you wonder how much of yourself you’re bringing into it, because in my own work ... that is the last thing I would be preoccupied with. For me it’s just a representation of life force ... so it tends to be kind of phallic in kind of a pagan rather than modern sense.
(Quoted in Loock, 1995, p.68.)
The phallus also features in Pettibon’s drawings as a shooting arrow, as in Untitled (Like a Gumdrop).
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