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Raymond Pettibon’s Surf Paintings Are Pure Punk Poetry

By Priscilla Frank

When people think of Southern California, sun-drenched images of palm trees and epic ocean waves come to mind. But L.A. is more than just a scenic beach postcard. Take those ocean waves and mix in some baseball players and pinup girls, punk rock energy, D.I.Y. aesthetics and a Dada state of mind. Then add lightbulbs, Elvis Presley, railway trains and a bit of Charles Manson mythology. This dizzying SoCal energy, as frantically fast paced as it is repetitive, this is the stuff of a Raymond Pettibon painting.

No Title (Deeper above all)

In his current exhibition “Are Your Motives Pure?” Pettibon compiles surf-centric artworks from 1985 to 2013, ranging from India ink drawings to color-splashed waves in watercolor, gouache and acrylics. “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,” Venus Over Manhattan Gallery explains.

The disorienting paintings are a low-fi cultural remix, jumbling artistic influences including Francisco de Goya and Robert Crumb, Barbara Kruger and William Blake. His quivering comics feature text from writers including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, James Joyce and Pettibon himself, amounting to mesmerizing displays of warped quotations. For example, Pettibon tweaks Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Physics to read, “For every action there is an equal and opposite chain reaction in store.” Acclimating to Pettibon’s painted world is like regaining composure after wiping out while surfing and shaking off the salty remnants of furious waves.

No Title (That fact of), 2003

“With my kind of work, things mingle and associate, and something comes from it — or not,” Pettibon told The New York Times in 2005. Indeed, when two unlikely figures in Pettibon’s scribbled universe come together, it seems like an animal magnetism is responsible. When the a-ha moment doesn’t occur, the viewer is left feeling unsettled and exhilarated, perhaps emitting a nervous laugh to cover up the disappointment of not understanding.

But Pettibon’s work is more dark poetry than philosophical doctrine, and trying too hard to figure out exactly who’s speaking and why will be ignoring what makes his work so intoxicating. “The work is supposed to be finished by the reader,” Pettibon has said. “I’m meeting them halfway but it’s supposed to expand from the small scene on the paper. It’s a starting point towards creating a world in the imagination.”

Though Pettibon has expressed his wish to communicate information, not obscure it, his language, both visual and lingual, is a beast all its own. His Twitter account is full of wise nuggets including “I dn’y oftten driive and ddrriink,butt when I’m drunk, I pprefefer Dos Equisis.“ And The New York Times quoted this lengthy meditation on surfing: “When you bring shore life thoughts and theories/observations into the surf (when you attempt to shore up the line up) that is when (the moment) the nose of your longboard (shortboards, you’re not ready for) breaks the surface of the wave, begins to ‘pearl.’”

Swim in the painted chaos that is Pettibon’s jumbled visual waves, full of all the erratic ups-and-downs of the surf life, or the Los Angeles life, or just life in general. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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