But surfing, unlike the majority of Pettibon’s chosen subjects, is mostly spared from the artist’s raging cultural criticism. Some of his surf pictures do poke fun at the culture surrounding the sport. In one, speech bubbles emerging from buff surfers make clear they’re in the game more to get laid than to commune with the water: “There are woods, there are women…but there are beaches too, and girls like grains of sand.”
Most of them, though, take a different tack. And in the grand scheme of Pettibon’s largely misanthropic oeuvre, his images of surfing double as glimmers of peace—even optimism—in a chaotic world.
If you’ve ever surfed, or watched a gaggle of surfers from the comfort of warm sand, you know that the sport is as much about waiting patiently for a wave and wiping out as it is about catching one. But in Pettibon’s surf pictures, his subjects are almost never idling or falling, but instead mastering the force of nature: little specks of humans carried by the cresting, plummeting water.
In one painting from 1997, a man rides a sky blue and cobalt wave. It towers over him, but he seems unperturbed. Instead, there’s serenity in the little cavity that houses him under the wave’s break. A poetic caption at the top of the piece, suspended in a cloud, reinforces the impression of tranquility, even safety: “The walls are embossed with pink and gold waves: a room that never lets you crash to the pavement.”