Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Raymond Pettibon's Punk Period

Boise State highlights punk's iconic illustrator


Raymond Pettibon is a legend in his own time. Not with the general public but certainly with fans and aficionados of the punk-rock scene centered in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and '80s. His graphic, low-life vignettes were reproduced in zines and on fliers, promotional posters, stickers and album covers for Los Angeles punk bands of the period--most conspicuously his brother's group, Black Flag.

Pettibon's creative activities from those years made him a cult figure in the underground music scene, a status he holds to this day despite spending the last 25 years building an international reputation as a respected contemporary artist.

Beginning Wednesday, March 7, Boise State's Visual Arts Center will present Raymond Pettibon: The Punk Years, 1978-86, an exhibit featuring some 200 examples of Pettibon's graphic output during those prolific, subversive years that preceded his career as a recognized artist.

The exhibit is curated by David Platzker of Specific Object, a New York clearinghouse for visual, literary and outsider art that, in his words, "has fallen through the cracks of mainstream culture." The show represents eight years of Platzker collecting a sizable stash of Pettibon punk paraphernalia. Although his curatorial interests focus mainly on pop art, minimalism and conceptual art, Platzker has an active interest in any "transformative work that affects how we look at art today," whether high-brow or low.

The 1960s were transformative culturally in many ways, not least of which was the evolving rapport between rock and the visual arts. Around 1966, album covers and concert posters became, for a time, increasingly more inventive and bold in design, color and demeanor. California led the way with psychedelia, day-glo effects and R. Crumb. But Platzker is right when he says, "every 10 years or so, a small revolution in visual art takes place."

Nothing had prepared us for the advent of punk in the late '70s.

In 1977, Pettibon's guitarist brother Greg Ginn founded the band Black Flag--a tribute to Black Sabbath and the insecticide--and SST Records, which recorded the leading punk bands in Los Angeles. At this point, Pettibon was not a represented artist but a subculture denizen with aggressive, comic-style graphic design skills and a sharp, subversive mind--he came up with the Black Flag name and designed its four-bar logo.

Working with offset and screen printing techniques on behalf of bands like the Circle Jerks, Subhumans, Dead Kennedys, the Ramones, Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Killer, the Minutemen and, of course, Black Flag, Pettibon produced a stream of raw, edgy imagery oozing attitude with an assortment of erotic (homo and hetero), sacrilegious and political themes. Spiced with macabre humor, sordid characters, a heavy dose of cynicism and the clamor of competing fonts, his style was noted for its total lack of taste. For example, in one of Pettibon's artist books in the collection, entitled "Just Happy to Be Working," the frontispiece features a shirtless, shoeless male hanging by his neck.

Black print and dark shadows dominate Pettibon's early work, with fliers and posters often printed on colored paper. To find any historical precedent, one has to go back to the photomontages of the Dada artist John Heartfield (nee Helmut Herzfelde) in the 1920s, whose photomontages savaged the Nazi thugs, corrupt politicians and lords of industry in Weimar Germany.

Pettibon's covers for 7-inch and 12-inch vinyl records in the Boise State exhibit include a number of classics, like Black Flag's albums Six Pack, The Process of Weeding Out, and the soft-porn The Blasting Concept compilation album jacket, all in black and white. Though Pettibon would often use color for the records, with Black Flag particularly, he preferred the basics. Even so, the introduction of more color was a harbinger of the changes in his work that came after he began showing in galleries.

Raymond Pettibon: The Punk Years, 1978-86, is touring under the auspices of Independent Curators International. It is the first of the Exhibitions in a Box series, which over the last two years has sponsored 12 such events, conceived and developed by artists, curators and art historians providing what it calls "high-content, low-cost exhibitions" for venues of varying size and resources. A kit, if you will, for creating an art show on the spot. It is unlikely that we have seen anything like The Punk Years at Boise State's Visual Arts Center before.

Pettibon was unable to be reached for an interview, which is unfortunate but not out of character. Some critics have said, in retrospect, that Pettibon was actually contemptuous of the whole Los Angeles punk scene, as evidenced by the fact he peopled his imagery with "such pathetic losers," as one commentator put it. But was he really the misanthrope he seemed to be in his base portrayal of humanity? And how does he look at this work in hindsight?

Platzker is of the opinion that Pettibon's personal take on the subjects of women, sex and religion was more edgy than dark. He cites Pettibon's 1984 comment that "all this stuff will be collectibles someday" as evidence of his cynical mindset.

Yet there is no denying that darkness has long had enormous aesthetic appeal to him, an aspect of his art that he still returns to--as in his 2009 series of lithographs entitled The Black Album. The ICI survey of Pettibon's formative years as a punk evangelist gives us the opportunity to consider these questions firsthand.