Like the Supreme Court justice who knew pornography when he saw it, I know punk when I see it, and punk in all its messy glory is at the dark heart of "Raymond Pettibon: The Punk Years, 1978-86," now at the Schmidt Center Gallery at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
I hesitate to call this celebration of something as gleefully anarchic as punk an "exhibition" in the traditional sense. FAU's University Communications & Marketing Department has no such reluctance. "The exhibition will include a selection of museum-quality works by the artist," a news release proclaims. It's as if declaring the works "museum-quality" justifies expending a public institution's time, money, and space on someone like Pettibon, whose early core aesthetic seems to be one of in-your-face defiance.
The presentation of the material, fortunately, is much truer to the spirit of its raw, democratic origins. Roughly the front half of the gallery has been set up like a series of adjacent walls, each devoted to a couple of years from the show's time frame and each blanketed with fliers, posters, record covers, and the like, all densely packed into the space. The effect is like coming across a stretch of urban street front that has been plastered with handbills. There are more than 200 works in the show, which continues with 16 drawings on the reverse side of this "wall of walls." The Pettibon show is also supplemented, in the rear of the gallery, with samples of how punk manifested itself in South Florida.
A few of the walls up front feature the equivalent of artist statements printed, surprisingly neatly, in chalk on board, although Pettibon's musings are refreshingly free of the usual nonsense. Of his famous fliers, for instance, he writes that they bypass the usual modes of transmission: "It's more of a general audience when it goes on a telephone pole. It's not something that you buy in a store or see on TV. You see it at a glance and you can't switch it off."
And indeed, you can't switch off the visceral response evoked by a wall covered with Pettibon drawings. They reek attitude, which is part of what early punk was all about. Although it's clear that Pettibon is a fine draftsman, he's dismissive of technique, preferring to embrace a style that values crudeness as much as expressiveness. To call his work cartoonish would be a compliment.
A prime example of Pettibon's exaltation of simplicity is his minimalist logo for the band Black Flag, with its four compact, staggered bars of vertical black. If Pettibon has anything approaching a brand name, it's Black Flag, whose promotional materials are rampant here.
The Black Flag connection is all in the family. Pettibon, whose birth name is Raymond Ginn, is the brother of Greg Ginn, founder of both the band and its renegade label, SST Records. The two later parted ways, but in the early days, the brothers and Black Flag were virtually synonymous. In the bigger scheme of things, however, Black Flag was just one of the many bands Pettibon championed. The roll call includes the Circle Jerks, the Dead Kennedys, the Minutemen, Throbbing Gristle, Fear, the Germs, Hüsker Dü, Suicidal Tendencies, the Meat Puppets, the Go-Go's, Sonic Youth, and the Ramones.
Pettibon is especially articulate when he espouses the entrepreneurial spirit that was the basis of so much seminal punk. "There was the idea that you could do it yourself, that you didn't have to have Warner Bros. behind you or you were going to sink into nothingness," he writes in one panel. "There was a real parallel between all these small groups and independent labels and what I'd been doing." In the show's introductory text, he stakes his claim in the youth culture of Southern California even more succinctly: "It wasn't simply sound and fury, but an entire aesthetic system that took hold."
It's more than a little ironic, then, that so many of these "small groups" went on to hit the big time, abandoning their independent roots as they moved on to bigger labels and the corporate muscle behind them. The same bittersweet fate befell Pettibon, whose evolution embraced exposure in major galleries and museums worldwide. Today, his work is included in the collections of such places as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Tate Modern in London. He has also become something of a regular in the famous biennials of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
If we stop the clock in the mid-1980s, however, as this show does, Pettibon was just another angry, young punk, raging against the machine he would one day embrace. Pettibon's career trajectory, in other words, encapsulates the artistic tragedy of consumer capitalism: To have any kind of broad, significant cultural impact, a movement such as punk ultimately has to sell its soul to the very devil it has pitted itself against. We see examples of it every day. That doesn't make it any less melancholy, which is why this examination of Pettibon's early work unwittingly exposes the sadness underlying the exultation.