The Dystopian City of Angels: How The End of the American Dream plays out in the art of Raymond Pettibon.

The 235-year history of America has been one of slowly moving westward, heading out from the eastern edge of the New World and following the command of Horace Greeley to “Go west young man!”. Whether it was the Oregon Trail, the trains, or Route 66, the American Dream was and is one of expansion. Finally, after years of seeming unchecked and unmeasurable movement, we reached our furthest point of diffusion, the Pacific Ocean. And there (where some cities grow on the legends of larger than life characters struggling against nature) Los Angeles, the largest and possibly best example of western cities, strayed from the path of other romantic American dreams. The whole of Southern California for that matter, developed into a jaded version of the American Promised Land. The dream turned to nightmare, manifest destiny turned to a curse and “The City of Angels” seemed a lot less heavenly. Maybe it was to the hellish desert heat, the earthquakes, the racial tensions or the sex, drugs and money illicitly apart of Hollywood, but L.A. became the modern day city of sin, a now common metaphor. Los Angeles got the short end of the sin stick and has become more and more attached to the biblical city of Sodom, a place so evil God had to wipe it from the map.

We see this connection all through out portrayals of Los Angeles, according to Mike Davis in his essay “The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles” where he points out that “ the destruction of Los Angeles has been a central theme or image in at least 139 novels and films since 1909.”  Whether it be a cataclysmic act of nature, bombs or act of God, Southern California is a place doomed to play out the fantasy of destruction. We love to see it destroyed, possibly just possibly, because it really is the city of sin. It almost deserves to be destroyed as Mike Davis points out later in the same essay, “The obliteration of Los Angeles…is often depicted as, or at least secretly experienced as, a victory for civilization.” We have a strange love affair and take sadistic pleasure in watching our southern city kicked into the ocean. Why is this and why does it feel so good to bomb L.A.?

            Artist Raymond Pettibon has made a career of showing us a few faces of this place. His art chronicles the American dreams, myths and legends while also showing us the darker, seedy underbelly of his world of Southern California. Getting his start designing and illustrating posters and album covers for his brother’s band, the seminal L.A. punk band Black Flag, his work toed that line of comic humor and grotesque wit. One such poster showed a cop with a gun being forced in his mouth at the edge of death.

Typical of the punk rock, shoot from the hip attitude, Pettibon loved (and still loves) to push the limits of taste and tolerance. He often explores the same themes of Mike Davis and others, wondering why Los Angeles is such a hated place. Pettibon paints images of American icons and pioneers, trains across the deserts, baseball heroes, Batman and Robin and folk heroes like Bob Dylan but more often shown than these luminaries and legends, he shows the under class, the outcasts, killers and kooks of the street. He paints images of the things done behind closed doors, murder, sex, heresy and destruction. He portrays psychopaths alongside those heroes, such as Charles Manson, a repeating figure in his work. Pettibon himself grew up in the malaise of Los Angeles. One of Pettibon’s curators, Aaron Rose, talks about his own similar experience of growing up here in the book Beautiful Losers, a collection of California artists. Rose says “It was at that time when I began to notice all of the great 1960s paradox that I had been sold since I was a kid. The world that I saw around me was poor, depressed and at war, and yet somehow ironically there was this flaunting of excessive wealth and artifice in an incredibly grotesque manner.” Los Angeles is a dichotomy.  This split, as said by Rose, of poverty counter-pointed by the wealth is very evident in the paintings of Raymond Pettibon. Where else will we see paintings of Ronald Reagan (one time Hollywood actor and governor of California) paired with images of back alley blowjobs and knifings? This is the land of opposites, the glamorous wealth paired with poverty, the desert and the ocean, the big companies and the punk bands railing against the world. Howard N. Fox, in the book Los Angeles: 1955-1985, affirms this dichotomy in the world of art by asserting, “The image of Southern California’s erstwhile utopia has been displaced, or at least been rivaled by, that of a contemporary distopia [sic].” Pettibon has taken part in that art world of L.A and is featured in Foxes book as one of the chroniclers of that dystopia. Pettibon gives us a glimpse into the very world that Mike Davis shows being endemic of Southern California, he also gives us a face to the things we try to avoid, forcing us to look at the things that make us want to wipe clean the bottom half of California. One of his early works, “ Untitled (Police Officer Family)” from 1982, paints a telling image of life in those times. In the painting we see a cop posing as if for a photograph with his family. His smile and pose show that for him, everything is A-OK. But as we look closer things become more bizarre and even creepy than he may hope to let on. Dark sunglasses shade his wife’s eyes and her feminine figure is masked by baggy clothes, is she even a woman? The daughter standing to the policeman’s right smiles with the face of an older woman and holds a leash to a two headed, Doberman/Chihuahua, scary and freakish. Another child, facing away from the camera is spray painting on a wall. The image being tagged is the seven-headed cobra symbol of the Symbionese Liberation Army[1]. What is it doing here under the eyes of a smiling police officer?

Pettibon has also placed this family smack dab in the middle of a city, one barren of other people and life. While avoiding any direct connections and without his usual accompaniment of text, this painting shows us the strange mix of worlds, the dis-ease of the period and the many colliding divisions. The post hippie idealism of America was crumbling, attempts at changing the world with free love; communal living and love-ins had failed.  Here (in the art of Pettibon) we also see Charles Manson mentioned in disguise, or at least his attempt at cult leader status. The dystopian world was become more and more real. Mike Davis explored the world of science fiction, fantasy and horror films, but it seems that the real L.A. was facing pretty big problems in reality. In a 1996 book entitled Rethinking Los Angeles, the authors make note of this horrible reality, when it references the allure and the illusion of the region with its:

…Glossy, utopian images of the burgeoning World City- a collage of prosperity, fantasy, and play: the corporate     glitter of a downtown citadel; the sunshine, surf and mountains; the city as a giant agglomeration of theme parks. Beneath  such images is a cityscape more reminiscent of a Third World nation, a dystopia that is increasingly  polarized between the haves and the have-nots, in which neighborhoods increasingly resemble combat zones as warring gangs struggle for turf supremacy. Here, the air, earth and water are perpetually being poisoned. Here, public responsibility for basic human services, including shelter, education, and health care, are being abdicated.

            Science fiction wasn’t needed; the dystopian myths were falling to the dystopian realities. This is the world Pettibon grew up in and has used as his artistic fertilizer, images of Helter Skelter and SLA kidnappings are hard to get away from. The world was falling apart at the seams, from the economic gap to gang wars and pollution, no one seemed to be safe anywhere. Pettibon had a lot to pull from in his paintings, inspiration was everywhere.

Another of his paintings connects to this possible real future, also dreamed about in the Hollywood imaginations. “Untitled (Bakersfield)” shows a mushroom cloud rising into a black sky. The eponymous text, Bakersfield, gives us a clue to what is being vaporized. “Untitled (I grew up)” contains the text “I grew up in Orange County when the only ghosts were suicides” paired with an image of a frightened child being followed into a home by a skeleton. Pettibon is commenting on the dark history and the over all spirit of the place. It is interesting to contrast this skeleton to the name of Los Angeles, the city of angels, which in movies, literature and the art of Raymond Pettibon is inhabited by demons, the fallen angels.

Art critic Ulrich Loock states in his essay “On The Work of Raymond Pettibon” that Raymond is  drawing from the, “American Nightmare: disturbed sexuality, a cynical attitude towards women, youthful revolt falling into senseless violence, Charles Manson, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy clan’s lack of moral integrity…” Loock points out the cultural milieu, as in Rethinking Los Angeles, that the stuff of dystopia and Pettibon was in the air, and far from fantasy. Raymond Pettibon does not honor these grotesque people, but toys with and recasts these cemented images from his childhood life. His connection to Manson is not one of reverence but iconoclasm, he is seeking to deconstruct the killer and ,maybe through him, the times. In an interview with Max Blagg in Interview Magazine, Pettibon elaborates on his exploration of Charles Manson and what the killer meant for the culture by saying, “…that’s exactly what fascinated and horrified the public about Charles Manson back then-that someone could put such a spell on their children, on the girl next door. Seeing that made you feel that anything was possible, nothing was safe.” Nothing was safe, what a perfect connection for Mike Davis and his examination of why L.A. would be destroyed so often and so thoroughly. It seems that L.A. is ripe for destruction, because it is already slowly destroying itself; the somewhat sadistic pain sung about in all those punk rock songs Pettibon illustrated.

The greater Los Angeles metropolitan area is a place much maligned. The world is a modern fantasy of money, glamour and fame while at the same time being a place of death, murder, lust and destruction. Think of the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath, struggling across the dusty mountains and dropping down into Southern California, hoping for the promised land of Eden, but finding the place where dreams come to die. Pettibon uses these stories as inspiration and one of his paintings sums it up pretty nicely. Placed high above a street on a billboard to promote the San Diego Art Biennial, a black and white figure has his back to us and is walking away, almost out of frame. There is no background, no setting, nothing accompanies the man except for the text typical of Pettibon. It says, in giant letters, “I thought California Would Be Different.” We all did.  From the Indians who lived here first and had it stolen by the Spanish, to the Mexicans who had it stolen by the Americans, to those Americans who struggled  across the desert to only find, that the dream didn’t hold very much. The American dream ended here, able to go no further, and it didn’t seem to try. The gleam of Manifest Destiny had tarnished. The Promised Land was barren.


[1] The SLA was a revolutionary militant group in the U.S. made famous by their kidnapping of Patty Hearst as well as her subsequent involvement in SLA sanctioned back robberies.

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