Whitehot Magazine

Book Review: "Raymond Pettibon: Homo Americanus: Collected Works"

Raymond Pettibon, "Homo Americanus" cover. (Courtesy of David Zwirner Books New York)



Every so often, a fresh monograph comes out on a well-known, even rock star-status artist. And that artist’s fans and collectors purchase the new book, de rigueur, in much the same way that an avid music fan might purchase a greatest-hits or a remixes album — out of love and loyalty and connoisseurship and the obsessively acquisitive collector’s impulse, but with no real expectation of learning anything new. Well, maybe one or two new or previously unreleased tracks to sweeten the pot. On that score, people who buy Homo Americanus (the new Raymond Pettibon monograph out from David Zwirner Books) are in for a particularly excellent treat — but the real surprise is that even Pettibon’s biggest fans are in for a new education, too. 

The undeniably coolest and most unique element — the treat — is the inspired inclusion of a pulp-paper facsimile introducing the volume with the entirety of Pettibon’s first zine. The exceedingly rare 1978 Captive Chains, a 68-page artist book that represented his earliest, and in some ways precociously emblematic, collection of words and images. In format, tone, and content, this ineffably strange zine lays the foundation for everything Pettibon would become. Satirizing mass media tropes with a languid yet pointed wit, through representations of bondage and fetish culture, cinema noir, athletics, and symbols of senseless violence like gang wars, drugs, and women’s prisons, the zine melds a creepy retro proto-punk style with a toasty 1980’s anti-chic motif and an eccentric appreciation of art history that especially includes the darker of the Romantic and Neoclassical eras. Using the strip-panel format of the comics but not its bubble-gum esprit, his influences were more literary in character — authors like John Dos Passos and other literary stories of those naked cities circa WWII. In a genius design move, the zine is (though bound in the same tome) printed on rougher stock with the yellowed texture of old-style newspaper.  

Raymond Pettibon "Homo Americanus" pp. 408-409. (Courtesy of David Zwirner Books New York)

The most salient and engaging facet of the restrained slate of the didactic text — this is the education part — is the running color commentary by Pettibon himself, in jaunty introductions to both chronological and thematic chapters along with personal insights into specific pieces, and salty stories from the fuzziest of the old front lines in the war on normal. There’s a whole section of nothing but Black Flag flyers and album covers, and it’s exhilarating to see them all in this one place. Pettibon’s brother was Greg Ginn of Panic/Black Flag and the capo of SST Records and later (mostly because of Raymond’s killer merch) of SST Pubs. There’s a lot of backstory there. Pettibon recalls it as a time when “art” was a “word of derision,” and the band would just pick the drawings they liked from this mountain of drawings and slap their name on top and hit the copy machine.

Pettibon studied in the field of public choice economic theory at UCLA. But as he practices the theory, Pettibon extrapolates it into a more broadly, allegorical, artistic point of view, without losing its pragmatic conscience, allegorizing and visualizing its aversion to bland systemic abstraction, instead encouraging ambiguous individuality and specificity. This part of his story at least partly explains his attraction/repulsion to dysfunctional hippies, rampant militarism, the oppression of police, and later, the generational repetitions of these 1980’s bullshits in the new millennium.

Raymond Pettibon, "Homo Americanus" pp. 324-325. (Courtesy of David Zwirner Books New York)

Raymond Pettibon, "Homo Americanus" pp. 254-255. (Courtesy of David Zwirner Books New York)

Raymond Pettibon, "Homo Americanus" pp. 112-113. (Courtesy of David Zwirner Books New York)

Published on the occasion of his major European traveling retrospective at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg–Sammlung Falckenberg and Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Raymond Pettibon: Homo Americanus presents over six hundred works from every part of the artist’s career, the majority of which have never been shown before — and even addresses Pettibon’s absolutely wacky “Twitter practice” in the context of works made as recently as 2015. WM

Hardcover | 692 pages, 575 color | 7 x 10 1/4 inches | $65

Texts by Ulrich Loock, Raymond Pettibon, and Lucas Zwirner
David Zwirner Books

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Shana Nys Dambrot

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.

She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.


Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff


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