“My work on the subject (of baseball) does tap into some of the nuances of the game—the pitching of the baseball, for instance, or hitting a baseball—but also it says a lot about what goes on off the field as well about society in general. It’s kind of a microcosm of the society as a whole.”
Raymond Pettibon has drawn inspiration from Baseball throughout his career - alongside surfing, and many other elements of American vernacular that fuel his prolific output. Drawing mostly single baseball players alone at the mount, in loose cotton uniforms of the 1950s, the images have a nostalgic familiarity of images of sport icons from a bygone era of America. Pettibon uses the device of looking back to bring the present into focus, believing that we make sense of the present by understanding the past.
Pettibon grew up in Hermosa Beach, California, playing baseball and surfing as a child, and continues to have an active and genuine interest in these sports. Combined with his interest in political commentary and criticism, he uses these works to challenge some of the cultural norms surrounding the perception of public icons. Pettibon believes that baseball can be seen as a microcosm of society as a whole; he inserts dark undertones into the drawings that go beyond adulation, with overlaid texts suggestive of what might be going on off-field, including themes of alcoholism, religion, race, and masculinity.
Excerpt of interview with Raymond Pettibon by Grady T. Turner for BOMB magazine, 1999
RP Of my own favorite players in sports, there is a degree of style associated with them. I look at certain players for their batting stance, or the way they swing the ball or pitch. Of course, if you can’t strike out batters, you’re not going to be on the mound. So ultimately, statistics are an absolute criteria.
When I was a kid, I memorized baseball cards. I knew so many players’ lifetime averages: Eddie Brinkman, Ernie Banks. A year ago, I had a show where some of the art had to do with portraiture. I pinned to the wall Mickey Mantle’s baseball card from the mid-‘50s, which is probably worth a couple of hundred dollars. But rather than show his face on the front of the card, I showed the back with his stats. In a sense, that was a more biographical picture of him than his physical portrait could be. Because in baseball, that’s how you’re judged. The bottom line is your batting average and how many home runs you hit.
GT But how do baseball stats relate back to your experience as an artist? Is it that art has its own criteria of excellence, but they are never so definite as a batting average?
RP Well, it does make the point that there is no absolute criteria. But I’m more interested in the aesthetic quality to baseball. In athletics, I don’t have favorite teams. I don’t really care. I haven’t since I was a kid. I just hate the Yankees. But I like to see certain players play, primarily for the quality of doing something well. For instance, the endgame of basketball is putting the ball in the hoop. That considered, there are a plethora of ways to accomplish it. That’s the “art.” In music there are notes, and then there’s interpretation.
GT Your baseball players and surfers seem to belong to another era. The uniforms of the baseball players are flannel and the surfers wear baggy shorts rather than wetsuits. Why do you set your athletes in the past?
RP First of all, it’s visual. To draw someone with a wetsuit or a tight, double-knit baseball outfit doesn’t lend itself to what I’m looking to describe. It’s just one snapshot; I’m trying to depict something that is an action. If you draw a baseball player, for instance, with the old-time baggy flannels, you can depict the action better than you can with something that looks painted on his body—though a jock strap would look pretty good, too. But it’s also meant to go back in time to when baseball had more of a larger-than-life, epic quality. Whereas now, it’s just like anything else in the political arena: Bill Clinton, Washington Senators, .250 and five inches. And my surfers are all on longboards with baggies because it’s that surf-myth epic of big wave riding. You can’t hang ten on a 40-foot wave. That’s the main reason. I tend to go back in the past, whether it’s the ‘60s, or the ’50s, or the Depression era, or earlier. I think it helps to have some kind of distance. For instance, you can say a lot about race relations if you’re depicting a society in which there are no black players. Will Smith would be a better actor if he didn’t exist. In general, I like to have some kind of historical distance.
BLANKNESS IS NOT A VOID: APRIL 29 – JUNE 4, 2011 AT MARC JANCOU CONTEMPORARY, NEW YORK
In 2011, Marc Jancou Contemporary exhibited Steven Parrino and Raymond Pettibon alongside each other in the exhibition ‘Blankness is Not a Void” which also featured the artist Scott Campbell. Curated by Marc Jancou, it created a dialogue between Pettibon’s 1980s Punk Rock imagery and the Romantic, mannered works on paper of Parrino, encouraging viewers to re-evaluate American “low” culture by considering the commonalities among these particular artists' chosen content and use of materials.