“ARE YOUR MOTIVES PURE?: RAYMOND PETTIBON SURFERS: 1987—2012” AT VENUS OVER MANHATTAN
Renowned for his seminal black & white hardcore punk flyer imagery, artist & cultural icon Raymond Pettibon was raised in Hermosa Beach, CA, and though not an avid surfer himself, grew up surrounded by the language of the sport as an emblem of the Southern California—and by extension, American—lifestyle. It’s a visual theme that has remained constant throughout Pettibon’s 30+ year career and is exhaustively chronicled in depth for the first time in “Are Your Motives Pure,” a must-see retrospective at NYC’s Venus Over Manhattan Gallery.
Almost all of the paintings on view in the show depict an ocean roiling with beautiful, chaotic swells, accompanied by meandering texts, non-sequiturs, quotations, and bits of poetry in the artist’s handwriting. The exhibition takes its title from the earliest work on view, Untitled (Are Your Motives Pure?), (1987), a black ink painting showing a lone surfer cutting his line across the face of a towering wall of water; above this scene floats the artist’s seemingly rhetorical question. Echoed by two similar compositions from the same year, this small work throws the power of Pettibon’s surfer theme into high relief. The remarkable energy of the ocean and the epic solitude of the man testing it are undiminished by the small dimensions of Pettibon’s picture plane.
The monochrome India ink of Pettibon’s early surfers gave way to more vivid paintings in the 1990s, when he first introduced color through use of pencil, watercolor, gouache, pen, and acrylic paint. The exhibition includes numerous works from this period. By 2000, the surfer paintings became more complex and monumental, and the artist’s arcane associations and analogies are more visible, albeit more seemingly random. Untitled (That fact of…), (2003), couples surfer and wave with an atomic mushroom cloud and text that restates Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Physics. “For every action,” Pettibon inscribes at the bottom of his frame, “there is an equal and opposite chain reaction in store.” In other paintings, the surfer finds himself in the company of others – a seabird here(Untitled (I have little dominion) of 2007), fellow travelers there (Untitled (I’ll go with…) of 2003). In Untitled (Outside! moondoggie was…), (2013), a UFO zooms over the horizon beyond a beach where surfers gawk. But Pettibon’s recent monumental paintings are epics consistently devoted to the vast force of Nature herself. On the surface of a giant blue wall of water, the tiny figure of the speeding surfer invites reflection on the life of an artist, on ego and fame, naiveté and bravery, loneliness and mortality.
Pettibon’s surf paintings so not attempt to represent or idealize a real surfing scene. Instead, the artist is elevating the surfer to the top of his repertory of American icons, tracing the figure’s arc through the terrifying and chaotic ocean of life in a manner perhaps more evocative of Edward Hopper than The Endless Summer. Pettibon’s joy in the mythology of surfing is palpable in his sincere images, but fate hovers just beyond his frame, where the crash of his wave will end the surfer’s fleeting moment of glory. Pettibon’s work succeeds in suspending our disbelief.
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