Raymond Pettibon is well known for his punk-related biography, which he now says he doesn't want to discuss. The artist is responsible for designing the logo for Black Flag—a famous punk rock band founded by his brother Greg Ginn in 1976. (In its early existence, when the band was called Panic, he even played bass guitar in the group.) During this period, towards the end of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Pettibon designed and illustrated album covers, fliers and other music-related merchandise. In 1990, he made an iconic cover for Sonic Youth's album Goo based on a photo of Maureen Hindley, the sister of Moors murderer Myra Hindley, with her husband David Smith.
As time went on, Pettibon distanced himself from the music scene and focused on his art career. In 1991 he participated in the Whitney Biennial (as well as three times later—in 1993, 1997 and 2004). Okwui Enwezor invited him to take part in documenta 11 in 2002, and in 2007 the artist was included in Robert Storr's edition of the Venice Biennale. By now, his artworks have been shown in several key institutions for contemporary art—such as MoMA, New York; MoCA, Los Angeles; The Drawing Center, New York; and MACBA, Barcelona—and have been included in the collections of dozens of respected museums, from Centre Pompidou, Paris; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; to Tate Modern, London; and Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin. Yet, while the artist has become a famous figure, he is still very much a DIY guy, with a style that is recognisable for those who know it. His drawings are expressionistically 'uneven', complemented with comic-like bubbles or quotations (or pseudo-quotations) from his favourite writers. These texts are usually sarcastic, skeptical, absurdist or pessimistic, in the tradition of a specific punk sensitivity. In one 1982 image, No Title (All He does...), we can see a priest standing near the table with a bottle of liquor and a gun on it saying: 'All he does for me is remind me how weak I am'. In No Title (Nobody Reads Dostoevsky...) (1986), a squinting Stalin says: 'Nobody reads Dostoevsky anymore'.
Pettibon is currently exhibiting at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow (7 June–13 August 2017). The exhibition is a restaging of A Pen of All Work, curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni at the New Museum in New York (8 February–9 April 2017), which also travelled to Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht in Holland (2 June–29 October 2017). At Garage, the exhibition has a new title, The Cloud of Misreading, and includes one more curator—Katya Inozemtseva—and not all works from the New Museum are on display. This is partly due to the fact that some remain in Holland, and that Garage did not dare breach current Russian laws, nor aggravate Orthodox fundamentalists who have already protested and vandalised several exhibitions at the other Russian museums. Mostly, this concern deals with artworks of a sexual nature, including nudes (but not all of them).
Nevertheless, the Garage show is still quite radical for Moscow. It includes mostly works on paper made with ink or pen from the 1980s to 2010s, and a three by ten metre mural commissioned by Garage that pictures a wave with a surfer over which quotations from Proust (modified by the artist) are scrawled. (Blue and green illustrations depicting Californian surfers on waves and beaches are a highlight in the show.) Thematically, the exhibition presents works from different periods of Pettibon's life, including from the 1980s, the gloomiest period of the artist's career, with mostly black and white drawings picturing sex and violence, individual depression and societal rage. Many pieces are dedicated to writers he is interested in (and not only those that he likes). For instance, in the Tombstones II series (1993–1997), the artist wrote with ink pen on the pages of book by Kerouac: 'T was a plot' or 'to whose who now write', sometimes placing an ink dot on the top of these pages. There are a range of works that deal with World War II crimes and atrocities of authoritarian regimes (Pettibon mentions the nuclear bombing of Japan by the US air force or propaganda and everyday life in the Soviet Union), as well as pieces that deal with contemporary topics such as the war on terror and police violence. In an untitled drawing from 2007, for instance, the artist writes ironically: 'Send the secret service to Iraq. They will do a wonderful job, given the offensive. Then who will protect the president?' These texts were all translated into Russian for the exhibition by poet, musician and Left-wing political activist Kirill Medvedev.
This interview took place at the Garage Museum in Moscow, during some unnaturally heavy rain, while Pettibon and his team were installing his show. The artist was sitting near an unfinished mural drinking a tiny bottle of vodka. He was tired, upset and affected by the downpour, but revived just in time for our conversation. What follows is an excerpt from our discussions.
SGThis is your first solo exhibition in Russia. Are you familiar with the local context, or the Russian art scene? There is an old movement, the so-called 'Moscow Conceptual School', whose artists use literary quotes, their own texts and slogans of the Soviet era, and put them into the artworks—paintings, drawings or installations—in two ways. The first strategy is to use words or phrases because of their meaning or as a reference to a certain context (as in the work of Ilya Kabakov or Pavel Pepperstein), and the second is to use letters and words as pure forms (Erik Bulatov, for example). Do you relate to this strategy?
RPI guess it's a combination of both. In my case, I'm not trying to create a direct one-to-one relationship with a reader and a viewer. It can be formal when the language is a part of the visual, in a sense. However, Russian art before and during the Soviet period is very influential on international art in general—meaning abstract art, and poetry and writing as well. It was a problem when it was exploited for the propaganda purposes of the Soviet Union, and Lenin and Stalin. But it was the same in the United States—not in such an overwhelming one-leader system as in Russia, but in the 1930s, America had its own Socialist Realist period as well.
SGIn your artworks, you quote your favourite writers, including Kerouac and Proust, or, more often, make references to their books. How do you choose the texts that you quote or refer to?
RPAs I read them, I'm also rewriting them at the same time. These ones on the wall [the mural Pettibon made for Garage] are almost direct borrowings. Sometimes the words I write are strict quotations but usually not. In this case with the mural, I didn't have any grandiose plans of what I'm going to do here. Maybe just an idea, since it's a wall, just a certain motif. The words are from Proust for the most part. And they seem to fit 'cause they are breaking the waves, and in the middle they split—you can go this way and that way.
SGI found out that your favourite writers experimented mostly with the form of language, even constructing their own systems of language, like Joyce and Proust.
RPWhen I read, it's not to get from the beginning to the end, it's taking place all along the way. My work in visual art has as much to do with images as with words. It does deal with narrative and a certain still—like a film still. So it breaks down the book form, with its page-after-page logic, all these steps to work with. It's either drawing, or sometimes I do comic books. For the most part, there is just a picture and then words.
SGIn the West in general, or just in America, comic art is a great tradition; there is a whole industry that produces comic books. But in Russia, we haven't had this kind of tradition, though during the last 20 years, this culture has since appeared in the country. Do you think this medium can be understood without living with it from childhood?
RPI didn't grow up with comic books. Nowadays, every movie is comic book-related. I wasn't a part of comic fandom. The reason comic books are related to my art was that, for me, it was the way to learn how to draw, because it's like a visual shorthand. And also there is a narrative aspect. When you are working both with the visual and writing, of course you find this relationship in comic books.
SGIs that why you like working in series rather than with singular artworks?
RPNo, more on the contrary; usually I make one drawing at a time. As I've gone on, I intend to be more narrative, in an obvious way, using a certain story. I still do traditional forms of narration as in a film or a comic book. But most of my works are constrained to one page, to one time frame.
SGYou also draw portraits of politicians like Stalin or American presidents in your pieces. Do you think of these portraits in a political way, or do you simply seem them as images from mass culture, not unlike Mickey Mouse or Madonna?
RPThey are not there for propagandistic purposes, trying to convince people to love this person or not. Usually when I deal with a portrait, whether it's Stalin, Hitler or a self-portrait, it's more about portraiture in general. The form of portraiture is not devoted to politics. It also goes back toward my formative years as it comes from editorial political cartoons in magazines. It's not for me to try to convince people to sway politics. If it was possible, I would. But it is unlikely.
SGKirill Medvedev, the writer who translated all phrases in your drawings into Russian, thinks the opposite. He uses music and poetry as an instrument of class struggle and empowerment of oppressed social groups in his own work. He thinks that direct political statements put into the artworks can change the situation. Did you talk to him to make sure that your message and intentions would remain in the translation of your works, and to describe the context in which your artworks were made?
RPI don't know how the translation goes, whether it will be useful to discuss the context with people at hand rather than just let it go. Because translating one language into another is not completely a formal thing. I don't have grandiose visions and expectations of changing world politics with my art. I'm all for it but it's a kind of hubris and guaranteed to fail.
SGHowever, several phrases and situations presented in your artworks are quite critical of society and mass media.
RPBut it's not necessarily my point of view. Whatever goes on in my artworks, it's more complex than just a strict relationship between the elements inside the image; it's not just finger pointing. There is already the assumption that it's open to failure. The history of art in the United States shows that when artists work in politics it has a boomerang effect; it works in the opposite way. I think, in my case, it's more sophisticated because I understand the complexity of all that.
SGThere's a big dose of black humour in your artworks—a kind of sad irony. Is it your own feelings that you are expressing, or are you just following the rules of narration?
RPNo, it's me, and it's not by accident. Like with politics, there is no direct correspondence between my works and the perception of readers and viewers and what they are going to take from it. With humour, it's not a punchline like in a cartoon when you get the joke and you laugh, you know. It's more indirect, but that's not to say that it doesn't exist. That's a major part of my work. But whether people get the joke, that's not for me to decide.
SGBut are you interested in how the audience reacts to your artworks, or your jokes?
RPIt's not an issue with me. But that's not to say I'm not interested in it. I hope people react. I think I have a loving relationship with the audience but that doesn't mean I'm intimate with them. I don't know what the expectations are. Once I've done the work, I hope there is feedback. I have respect for my audience. I'm not working in a vacuum. On one hand, it's very important to me what people get from my artworks. But on the other hand, I had zero audience for many, many years. And I don't know the majority of the people who constitute my audience now.
SGSome artists and writers can't stop making work; they just can't finish. What about you?
RPThat can be a problem actually. I've been making the mural here in Garage for three days now. And there is a point when you need one more line and one more and one more. You should know where to stop. In my case, typically, if you go to my studio, there are hundreds of unfinished works. Sometimes it takes me ten years or more to finish a drawing, for better or worse.
SGSo you could even pick up a brush during the vernissage and continue working on the mural you are making here at Garage ...
RPThat has happened a number of times. It's probably best for me not to have a brush in my hand, because otherwise I would likely continue working. —[O]