RAY DON’T SURF
Writing by Robert Henri Photo by Tim Barber
Raised in Hermosa Beach, CA, Pettibon spent a bit of time around the ocean, but never quite got into surfing. He went on to earn an economics degree from UCLA, then worked as a high school mathematics teacher in the LA public school system for a short period before pursuing a BFA. Since the late 1970s, Pettibon has been contemplating the notion of what America truly is—its history, literature, sports, religion, politics, and sexuality—in a bombardment of drawings and paintings in a style born of comic books and the “DIY” aesthetic of Southern California punk-rock album covers, concert flyers, and fanzines. Depicting a dizzying arrangement of themes with his compositions of drawings and text, Pettibon has created a vocabulary of motifs that reappear through out his work. This range of fabled stories includes religious icons, vixens, baseball players, war scenes, cartoon characters such as Gumby, and psychopaths such as Charles Manson. These themes are repeated over and over in a classic American combination of excess and routine. Out of all the themes at play, the most poetic and revealing motif might be the surfer, the solitary figure plunging into the depths of a massive wave. Pettibon’s “surfer paintings” put viewers deep in the lyrical heart of his work for a ride-along with a counterculture existentialist hero who perhaps is the artist’s nearest proxy.
Ray doesn’t surf, nor does he claim to. Even though he used to live and work in the storied beach town of Venice, CA, he has little connection to “surf art,” nor does he consider his paintings of waves any part of that genre. Instead, Pettibon is elevating the surfer to the top of his repertoire of American icons, tracing the figure’s arc through the terrifying and chaotic ocean of life in a manner perhaps more evocative of Edward Hopper than The Endless Summer. Pettibon’s wave paintings are tales habitually dedicated to the great strength of Nature herself.
The wealthy collectors and galleries who cherish his work praise him for his signature style of inked lines, generous use of color, and found messages (however ambiguous), and they pay a premium to take part in his cultural investigation of the American condition. The counterculture, the disenfranchised, the culture he came from love his work because it feels like home.
Sometimes when a man exists in two cultures so different, with a CV such as Pettibon’s, people like to say things like, “He’s bridged the gap between subculture and high culture.” But he hasn’t. Raymond Pettibon isn’t here to garner empathy for his roots from the elite of the art world, nor the other way around. He simply exists in both worlds, without a bridge. Both want him, but can’t have him, and they likely care very little about one another.
The American painter Robert Henri, a leading figure of the Ashcan School, a 20th-century artistic movement, helped create one of the key philosophies prevalent in Pettibon’s work.
“That was an early influence of mine, actually. Robert Henri. He was a great teacher,” says Pettibon.
Those within the Aschcan School all came from various vocations with goals and political views as varied as their backgrounds. But the unifying desire from this group was to tell the truths of modern life, often in the poorer city districts. They were creating a historical record through art. Stories that would be seen by the art world, collectors, and captains of industry—bringing the crude realities those audiences were ignorant of right into their very
As the Ashcan artists a century ago discarded the contemporary art of their time, so does Raymond today. On the surface of a giant blue wall of water, the tiny figure of the speeding surfer invites reflection on the life of an artist, on ego and fame, naiveté and bravery, loneliness and mortality.