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Point Break: Raymond Pettibon, Surfers and Waves

Published by David Zwirner Books
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

“All this must be either surfed or painted”: This is the underlying sentiment behind Raymond Pettibon’s iconic works of surfers and waves in this quintessential volume dedicated to the motif.

Pettibon is known for his characteristically enigmatic aesthetic and sharply satirical critiques of American culture. Though drenched in cynicism, his work empathizes with the dizzying madness of our own humanity as it engages both so-called high and low culture. Perhaps most poetic among the many motifs present in Pettibon’s oeuvre is the surfer. In 1985, Pettibon began Surfers––a series he continues to work on to this day––popular for its depiction of the lone surfer silently carving “a line of beauty” along an impossibly large wave. 

This publication traces a selection of more than one hundred surfers from the series, from smaller monochromatic works on paper to colorful large-scale paintings applied directly to the wall. For Pettibon’s protagonist in these works, surfing exists apart from all else. Momentarily he achieves sublimity on the wave, distant yet synced with turbulent reality. We are forced to confront our own scale: small and feeble in the face of the power of nature, what is beyond our control. Pettibon’s lyrical writings on these painted surfaces—both his own and lines taken from literature—reference his own philosophies and the confusions of reality: he critiques and highlights the hypocrisies and vanities of the world he engages. To help navigate, the scholar Brian Lukacher explores art-historical antecedents in Pettibon’s work, particularly the seascapes of J. M. W. Turner, and Jamie Brisick, the writer and former professional surfer, examines the Southern California surf and music culture of Pettibon’s youth. The professional big wave surfer Emi Erickson also describes the sensory experience of conquering the enormous waves depicted in Pettibon’s works.

Raymond Pettibon’s (b. 1957) influential oeuvre engages a wide spectrum of American iconography variously pulled from literature, art history, philosophy, religion, politics, sports, and alternative youth culture, among other sources. Intermixing image and text, his drawings engage the visual rhetorics of pop and commercial culture while incorporating language from mass media as well as classic texts by writers such as William Blake, Marcel Proust, John Ruskin, and Walt Whitman. Through his exploration of the visual and critical potential of drawing, Pettibon’s practice harkens back to the traditions of satire and social critique in the work of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists and caricaturists such as William Hogarth, Gustave Doré, and Honoré Daumier, while reinforcing the importance of the medium within contemporary art and culture today.

Jamie Brisick’s books include Becoming Westerly: Surf Champion Peter Drouyn’s Transformation into Westerly Windina (2015), The Eighties at Echo Beach (2011), Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow (2004), and We Approach Our Martinis with Such High Expectations (2002). His writings and photographs have appeared in The Surfer’s Journal, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Guardian. In 2008, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles.

Brian Lukacher is a professor of art at Vassar College. He is a scholar of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British art, architecture, and photography. His publications include the monograph Joseph Gandy: Architectural Visionary in Late Georgian England (2006), and he is a contributing author to 19th-Century Art: A Critical History (2019). His current projects include a volume on J. M. W. Turner and Romantic-period theories of vision and hallucination, and a study on animal perception in Pre-Raphaelite art and the writings of John Ruskin.

"Perhaps no subject better captures the spirit of Mr. Pettibon’s drawings than that of surfers dwarfed by towering waves."

– Nancy Princenthal, The New York Times

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