Human depravity, sexualized violence, macabre desires come to life in two dimensions; this is the world artist Raymond Pettibon renders in pen and ink. It is a world mirrored sonically by the band he formerly played with, Black Flag, and the label where he acted as visual curator, SST, for much of the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
Most familiar with the hardcore punk scene of this time will remember Pettibon’s comic book influenced drawings. They adorned telephone poles, streetlights and album covers. Flyers depicting police officers with guns lodged in the their mouths, nuns brandishing shiny steel hedge clippers, and other disturbing scenes accompanied by cryptic captions, advertised shows by Black Flag, Circle Jerks, DOA, and many other bands of that period. In 1990 he did the artwork for Sonic Youth’s “Goo”. The album cover has been both one of his most enduring and typifying images.
While his artwork has since become iconic and synonymous with this period in punk music, few know the artist responsible. Fewer still know he was the original bassist for Black Flag; a band started by his older brother, guitarist/songwriter and SST label founder, Greg Ginn. Pettibon was responsible for suggesting the name Black Flag reasoning, "If a white flag means surrender, a black flag represents anarchy." He also created the four black bar logo that served as the band’s emblem.
His art conjures R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman, two other artists whose illustrative approach are often attached to a literary narrative. Crumb and Steadman partnered with writers Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson respectively, while Pettibon borrows text and verse from a variety of sources, including those of his own creation. He cities Henry James, Ruskin, and Mickey Spillane as literary inspirations, whose prose, often inspire and accompany his drawings. The noir themes and world the characters in his art inhabit dovetails perfectly with the grit and naked aggression associated with hardcore. His art helped to inform the gutter poetry and paranoia inherent in the genre.
Pettibon has since gone on to earn the prestigious Bucksbaum award in 2004, given to artists every two years that have exhibited at the Whitney Biennial. His work is part of the permanent collection at the MoMA in New York, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the MoMA in San Francisco, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Despite achieving some renown in art circles he is still relatively unknown beyond the underground subculture. Recently, he has begun recording and playing music again with his band the Niche Makers. The music is described as, “New Orleans on cheap wine and canned martini's” and a record is slated for an early 2009 release.
His art seems particularly timely today and worthy of exploring. On a recent trip to New York City, a visit to the Chelsea art galleries revealed several artists working in Pettibon’s graphic cartoon style. The violent themes, sexual content, and hard-boiled view of life on display were undeniably influenced by his uniquely American vision. Given the resurgence in hardcore, with bands like the Gallows and Fucked Up looking back to bands like Black Flag for inspiration, some of Pettibon’s imagery is sure to seep into the popular consciousness. God help us all.