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April 6th, 2005 BECKY OHLSEN | Music Stories
 

Unexpected High

High art meets punk rock in Raymond Pettibon's scribblings.

     
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Save your cocktail napkins. That's the lesson.

Raymond Pettibon has followed that rule, and now his comic-strip/punk-inspired artwork has gone from posters and cassette-tape covers to the walls of some of the country's most important museums. He isn't obnoxiously famous. He's never had to wrap bridges in fabric or slice a dead cow into pieces for attention. He just hangs out enigmatically in Southern California, painting and lettering his pen-and-ink drawings like Lichtenstein with a heart, stepping out occasionally to sing/rant/growl with his band. (More on that later.) And now look, he has cult worshipers and major territory staked out on hallowed museum walls. Not bad for an old punk. So save your cocktail napkins, your scrawled-on ticket stubs, your beermat or matchbook masterpieces. There is hope!

Pettibon started his career in the '70s as, basically, the guy whose brother co-founded the mighty Black Flag. (That would be Greg Ginn.) He illustrated most of the early BF album covers and worked as the unofficial go-to art guy for SST Records. Meanwhile, as you do when you're hanging out with a bunch of creative young punks, he produced stapled-together art zines and pimped them on the street. The difference between him and the average DIY scribbler was that his stuff happened to be really good. Remember the cover of Sonic Youth's Goo? He's the one who drew the cool kids in a car, shiny black hair, sunglasses, cigarettes with the words "I stole my sister's boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road." How punk rock is that?

Dynamic and crammed with energy, Pettibon's work is all malicious dames and hard-luck gunsels, heartbroken surfers and gangster molls, Ward Cleaver types in weird psychic agony. The characters are sparely drawn in jagged black lines, maybe a wash of color here and there, and framed by a sentence or two of text in Pettibon's drunken-draftsman's script. Sometimes he has more to say than he thought and the letters threaten to crowd the drawings off the page. Some of the panels come across as stories or parts of stories, sometimes they're more like one-off warnings, and other times they're brief vignettes illustrating some flash of philosophy or observation on pop life. The cover of an early DIY booklet (originally priced at $1.75, now worth something like $200 if you can find it) shows a naked woman in high-heeled shoes standing with hatchet in hand, a man's head rolling on the ground at her feet: "Perhaps the fact that I hadn't had sex in 3 whole days left me vulnerable," the caption deadpans. In one untitled work, a shattered-looking modern-day Thinker stares into nothing, the letters above him lamenting, "I see before me words you should not have written." In another piece, a certain familiar-looking guy hangs on a cross against a background of pink paint; floating above his bowed head, four lines of pink-inked words cop Keats: "Truth is I have been in such a state of mind as to read over my lines and hate them."

During the '90s, Pettibon's works started getting much, much bigger as both text and drawings pushed their way off the page and onto the walls of exhibition spaces, as if they just couldn't contain themselves any longer. Then inevitably the artwork started to travel-Sweden, Scotland, Portugal, Japan, Austria. A Spanish museum, the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, organized a touring retrospective of his work in 2002 called Plots Laid Thick.

But if his work has traveled to the highest reaches of the art world, Pettibon himself has stayed close to his SoCal punk roots. He's still entrenched in the music world, writing song lyrics and singing occasionally with art-punk band Crinkum Crankum, headed by Austrian artist Hans Weigand. In 2001, the band released The Throat of Citizen Just, with lyrics by Pettibon and music by Weigand.

Pettibon's Viennese contemporary shares his fondness for working with the everyday world, though Weigand tends to respond to more immediate stimuli where Pettibon's work plays up nostalgia. Both artists have a dark sense of humor capable of making pointed statements in an entertaining fashion. Weigand's latest exhibition, "Cotton 2001," is a multimedia commentary on the idea of utopia that blends themes and structures from Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jerry Cotton, a German series of dimestore novels.

The two artists will deliver a lecture and discussion on Thursday at the PICA space, and Crinkum Crankum will rock the Holocene on Friday.

"They're basically an old-school punk band," said PICA's Kristan Kennedy. "Pretty entertaining."


Raymond Pettibon and Hans Weigand interview each other Thursday, April 7, at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, 224 NW 13th Ave., 242-1419. 7 pm. $12, $10 PICA members. Crinkum Crankum plays with Blitzen Trapper and Doris Henson Friday, April 8, at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St, 239-7639. 9 pm. $7, $5 PICA members. 21+.
 
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