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Pettibon in the Sky

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.”

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.”

It would seem the only concerns surrounding such a straightforward medium would be practical ones: What reads from the street and what doesn’t? Pettibon, however, is only minimally distracted by such questions. “The truth is,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “that I don’t really have the kind of mind or the patience to really put that much into those concerns in a self-conscious way. I’ve never self-consciously thought of my audience when I’m doing my work at all. That’s not to say that it’s not there in some way.”

 

When Undefeated launched the billboard project back in summer of 2002, Rose selected Angeleno artist Geoff McFetridge to start things off with an intricately designed 3-D collage. After that came a tagged-up photo by San Francisco–based graffiti guru Barry “Twist” McGee, followed by a Dennis Hopper photograph of Martin Luther King Jr., and then an absolutely shocking-pink panel inhabited by a lone mermaid alien, done by artist-filmmaker Thomas Campbell of Santa Cruz. The project was originally conceived to draw exclusively from West Coast artists, but that’s about to change. Says Rose: “The idea was to really promote West Coast art . . . A reaction against all of the focus that’s been given East Coast artists. Kind of a turf thing, I guess. But the project’s matured. And we’ve had so much response from around the world that it’s just been overwhelming, which has enabled us to mentally re-engineer the project. We’re seeing it now more as an exchange of ideas between artists and the public than anything geographic or regional.”

In March, the billboard project is looking to extend its talent pool with Tokyo-based artist-musician-designer Hiroshi Fujiwara, whose abstract graphic imagery and overall aesthetic has him pegged as the primary tastemaker for Japanese youth.

“His work is so different from anything we’ve done so far. It just opens the whole thing right up,” says Rose. “It’s like we’re breaking our own rules, which is a really fun thing to do. Looking back now, I’d have to say that by putting restrictions on who/what we would feature on the billboard, we were limiting ourselves and the potential of the project.”

Regardless of the aesthetic direction the Undefeated billboard project takes from here out, more than likely it’ll remain a welcome addition to the city’s skyscape.

Ed Templeton's Big Nothing  

Nude & rude: Templeton draws the line.

Two years ago, artist and professional skateboarder Ed Templeton won the “Search for Art” young-talent contest for his photo series “Teenage Smokers,” a 24-image installation that explored the aesthetically seductive and simultaneously vile relationship between kids and their cigarettes. The contest was sponsored by the Italian clothing manufacturer Mandarina Duck, and part of the prize included a solo show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The show “The Essential Disturbance” — which also traveled to Rome — consisted of no less than 320 pieces and encompassed every aspect of the artist’s work: painting, drawing, photography, collage works. It also included a skate expo and a limited-edition book titled The Golden Age of Neglect.

This weekend, the Huntington Beach native returns to Southern California with a show at Roberts & Tilton Gallery called “The Prevailing Nothing.” The show’s theme by default, says the artist, “is a visual life diary illustrated with photos, with or without writing and/or artwork on them, paintings, drawings, collages, etc. I don’t work within a frame, I probably should, but it really is sort of a splatter of everything.”

Teenagers and cigarettes. . . like chocolate and peanut butter.

To witness a wonderfully chaotic installation of Templeton’s work is to understand that, clearly, the mixture is a substantial part of the message. Exhibit walls teem with work. Each image, while often arresting in its own right, is only a piece of the artist’s potent ensemble. Even on a singular piece, an added story, a caption from a journal or even additional figurative marginalia scrawled across the surface of a canvas or photo prods the synergy, heightening the ultimate realization of Templeton’s message. Not that the artist writes all over everything. Some photos are left blank, some drawings relatively sparse, some paintings simple, all depending on the artist’s mood at the time of execution and the particular image itself.

“When I first started making art, I only chose photos that I thought could stand on their own, but then I started shooting and choosing photos that maybe needed a small push after printing so they’d pop in the right way,” Templeton explains, despite professing apprehensions about sounding too formulaic regarding his process. “I’m afraid that people will look for some type of pattern in my method, and really there is none to be found. I do whatever comes at the moment of doing it.”

Process aside, whether he’s painting an eloquent nude of Deanna, his muse and wife since he was 19, or shooting photos of young skater kids wrestling half-naked in hotel rooms amid spilled beer cans, the world as rendered by Ed Templeton well captures the angst-ridden urgency, joy and vitality of young American life: a kind of coming-of-age pilgrimage rife with the gut-wrench and heartbreak that inevitably vaults most all of us out into the world wounded and only partially prepared for what follows.

“The goal is to connect with people in a regular way that doesn’t require five years of art-theory classes to understand,” says Templeton. “Humans are funny creatures, and I want to capture that while also showing the folly of my own existence. It’s all a parade of learning and marching on to death. Beautiful but filled with suffering and fundamental wrongs that should be clear to all.”

—A. N.

Ed Templeton’s “The Prevailing Nothing” will be at Roberts & Tilton Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., November 15 through December 20.


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