What Am I Reading: Anpu Varkey
by STIRworldMar 31, 2020
by STIRworldPublished on : Apr 21, 2020
What is the name of the book?
Shiva Nallaperumal (SN): Homo Americanus: Collected Works.
Who is the author?
SN: Raymond Pettibon, edited by Ulrich Loock and Herald Faickenberg.
What is the genre?
SN: Artist retrospective, exhibition catalogue.
Why this book - could you please highlight its most notable aspects?
SN: Raymond Pettibon is an artist who has had a huge influence on me and my work. He is among the rare breed of artists (Peter Saville, David Lynch, Kevin Cummings and others come to mind) who have worked at the intersection of pop culture, music and fine art all the while deeply influencing the trajectory of all three branches. This book is his career retrospective, published on the occasion of his exhibition of the same name.
Pettibon first came to attention with the use of his artworks for the flyers and record covers of his brother Greg Ginn’s influential band Black Flag in the 80s. Pettibon’s harsh, brooding DIY style became the visual personification of hardcore punk, American teenage alienation and an entire subculture that immeasurably influenced the world. This book brilliantly categorises his vast body of work and presents it in a subject-based order, which is a very interesting curatorial choice.
It also contains the artist's own words introducing each chapter. The book does not try to sanitise his often-meandering thought but presents it as is, giving the reader the experience of actually having a one-sided conversation with the man. This makes sense as Pettibon’s work and thought is devoid of any pretensions and explanations: he detests hero-worship and the sound of his own voice.
Did you get any significant insights? Did you gain knowledge or did it help you unwind?
SN: One of the important insights is the way the initial flyers and record covers happened. Pettibon is most famous for his work in the early years, when his work graced every single promotional piece ever published by Black Flag. It didn’t happen in the usual artist-band-commission method where the band explains the context and the artist interprets it visually: Pettibon was, and still is, a prolific artist. He has made thousands and thousands of drawings. Apparently, the band would just choose drawings from his pile and use them, by placing the info (venue, date whatever) and the Black Flag logo (also designed by Pettibon) on the photocopy and plaster it all over town.
This haphazard, almost intuitive process led to the iconic language of Black Flag, which is not just visual. It is also defined by the randomness of the subjects in the communication: the flyers for music shows would have anything from portraits of Charles Manson to erect penises to demented Disney characters to slashed wrists — any subject that the artist was engaging with at that point in time. Pettibon’s works from the period typically seem like single panels from a comic book that was lost covering American sexuality, politics, subcultures, mores, and intellectual histories. As a result, the band never ever used a photograph of themselves or pictures of guitars or silly rock cliches — making each flyer an articulation of American culture, as this dark underbelly as seen from the mind of one singular artist, thus making each piece a window into a larger world.
I thought this aspect was most interesting — that the consumption of Pettibon’s work, or the crucial context that they were read was not influenced by the artist alone, but also by a band that was in need. This was not planned or even thought about but the effect it had was significant. For me, I see it as allowing the unplanned things in our working lives to influence us and free us — rather than us trying to control or plan every aspect, which will inevitably lead to disappointment.
Is there any one thing that you would take home from the read?
SN: I admire and envy Raymond Pettibon. From reading the book in its entirety, and for the first time seeing his work in such a wholistic way I could see the evolution of an artist who was never a slave to his style or context: he used it simply as a personal tool, like a voice, to articulate his interests, observations...That is true of any great artist I guess. But I envy Pettibon because his style is one such, I have always wanted to create for myself, truth be told. The simplicity, the absolute rawness of his language is equal parts visceral and basic.
What is your favourite quote from the book? Why?
SN: "It's too easy just to dismiss my work as punk rock or whatever. Which is what most people like to do. They like to categorise and historicise and put it in some dumbass context. It's much easier just to put someone in a group or context than to deal with the complexity of the mind and especially with work."
His immeasurable influence on the Punk and music scene is seen as incidental in a larger journey that will continue — he shrugs it off almost. Which was...inspiring. In our age we see too many artists, designers and architects who seem to be so much in love with themselves that it's nauseating. Pettibon wants his work to be seen as a stream of consciousness that hasn’t stopped.
When do you read?
SN: I don’t have a set time for reading, as a lot of people do — before bed or whatever. I should, though. I read in a very chaotic manner, sometimes all day, sometimes not for days. This book specifically is not one for bedtime reading as it is a hefty 700-page hardcover book full of art, so it's for table reading/looking.
What is your take on the book and one reason why you would recommend it?
SN: I would definitely recommend it. Although it is definitely not for a Pettibon novice — his writing doesn’t even try to provide context. If you don’t know Black Flag, hardcore punk, EC Comics, the various artists and incidents he references, one could be found googling things every minute of the reading experience. But that would have its own merits I guess; the book might open you to a world of amazing madness.
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