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Pettibon in the Sky 

Thursday, Nov 13 2003

On South La Brea these days, floating amid the otherwise standard capitalist signage that dominates much of the city’s skyline, there’s a billboard on the southeast corner at First Street that’s well worth a second glance — quite possibly even a full-blown park and gawk. Dangling precariously in the nothingness one might imagine to be the universe is the planet Earth, the words “billion$ were at stake” ominously underscoring it. This sly graphic subversion is the handiwork of Raymond Pettibon, one of the city’s pre-eminent paint-and-ink practitioners and hands down the artist of record for thinking punk rockers around the globe. So what the hell is a Pettibon doing parading around on a rooftop of a shoe store, anyway?

Last year, when Los Angeles’ high-end sneaker pimps James Bond and Eddie Cruz opened Undefeated, they decided that instead of having the same-old-same-old flashing neon hanging above their storefront, why not try something a little bit different and use the space to showcase contemporary art? To help achieve their goal, they called on the aesthetic guidance of L.A.-based curator Aaron Rose and the cash-money sponsorship of Nike. As has been the case for the past year, and will be for at least the next three years, both established and emerging artists will be invited to adorn Undefeated’s sky-high billboard-cum-canvas. The subject matter is left entirely to the artist’s discretion — only pornography and profanity are verboten — and each artist gets to show for three months.

For curator Rose, putting art up on billboards feels well-tailored to the geography of the city. “Los Angeles is just such a billboard town,” says Rose, hunching patiently over a pot of brewing coffee in the kitchen of his Echo Park hills bungalow. “Driving around this town you see them everywhere. And I’ve always felt that in order for art to be truly successful, it has to reach the masses. I’m interested in projects that liberate art and artists from the ghetto that is the ‘art world.’ I see this project as something that brightens the day of Angelenos as they traverse this city.”

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Rose, who is also putting the finishing touches on a huge street-art retrospective titled “Beautiful Losers” slated for the new Zaha Hadid–designed Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center in March, got in touch with Pettibon through Christian Strike, his co-curator on “Losers” as well as the founder of the now-defunct and much-missed skate mag Strength. While landing a Pettibon billboard is a coup that has Rose smiling ear to ear, he also sees it as a perfect fit.

Says Rose: “I mean, as an artist, Pettibon’s roots really lay in the public sphere. He was known for his album covers and punk fliers long before the art establishment ever discovered him. Asking him to create a billboard seemed like a logical step in the lineage of his work. Regardless of what he’s become, Pettibon really is the quintessential West Coast punk artist.”

Raymond Pettibon, just recently tapped for the prestigious and always controversial Whitney Biennial in 2004 (considered by many artniks to be a “who’s who of the moment” in American art), got his start back in the early 1980s making zines, fliers and album art for local punk bands, including his brother Greg’s band, Black Flag. After flourishing in the cloistered L.A. punk scene, however, Pettibon’s work showed it had legs and has transcended — while still retaining — its punk cred. Now, both mainstream pop culture and highfalutin art circles embrace the rogue artist.

Not surprising, considering Pettibon’s art succeeds on myriad levels. Surfers battling the big blue evoke the timeless war of man and nature. Gargantuan baseball players, lumber poised, ominously wait for the perfect pitch that will set them free. Elaborately rendered locomotives barrel endlessly — and sometimes collide — into the double-edged sword that is manifest destiny, becoming metaphors for the implosion of empire and snapshot commentaries on the price of progress. Pettibon captures, like few other artists today, the split second at which life and culture slam head-on into epiphany, and all that remains afterward are shards of ideas forever changed.

Frequently appropriating the likenesses of cultural icons like Charles Manson and Joan Crawford, or even cartoon characters Gumby and Vavoom — quite often festooned with cryptic passages spanning everything from the Bible to Henry James — Pettibon’s muscular and often noirish renderings have become as much a part of this city’s cultural vocabulary as the writings of Chandler or Bukowski or images by fellow artist Ed Ruscha.

When asked about the prospect of having his work loom over the more pedestrian, less art-specific environs of La Brea Avenue, Pettibon remains, like his art, enigmatic. The way he sees it, the billboard is another means of communication for the artist — with the big plus being that, as opposed to visiting a gallery or museum, people encounter the art with far fewer preconceived notions. “A billboard’s more generalized than those [other contexts], obviously,” says Pettibon, lounging among the piles of books and works-in-progress that dominate every flat surface of his Long Beach workspace. “There are no distinctions, you know, it’s just whoever sees it.”

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