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Book as art medium: Here’s a new chapter

Times Staff Writer

Raymond Pettibon stands surrounded by ink. Drawings -- hundreds of them -- fill every surface: on the floor, against the wall and spread out on a few tables of the West Hollywood gallery Regen Projects. On this afternoon, as the artist prepares for his show that will open a few days later, it looks like a 1940s comic book has exploded.

A young collector drops by. “Sweet,” he says. “Your work, man, it’s esoteric.”

And filled with words.

At times culled from one of the many torn paperbacks he carries around, text is an integral part of Pettibon’s work. The 46-year-old artist, who began his career making $1 zines that he sold through a store in New York or simply gave away, has had a career-long love affair with text in his art.

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“I like the format of books,” he says.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that about three years ago, he invited seven younger artists to collaborate with him on a book -- a bound collection of images, all dealing with travel or transportation. The book, “Faster, Jim,” was completed this month.

But don’t expect to see this book at the neighborhood Barnes & Noble. Only 27 are available, priced at $10,000 each. The 29-page book comes with a DVD featuring interviews with the artists. The Getty Research Institute has already bought one. So has a Paris bookseller, a local collector and a writer in Texas.

The Getty was interested in “Faster, Jim” because “it reflects something going on in our society right now,” says Joyce Pellerano Ludmer, book curator at the Getty Research Institute, which has one of the largest artists’ book collections in the country, with about 4,000 volumes. “It seemed to catch a moment in the development of artists’ books and art in Southern California.”

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Looking at artists’ books can be “an emotional experience as well as an intellectual one,” Ludmer says. “Some are extraordinarily beautiful and moving. Some have political messages or make a point about life.”

Ed Ruscha was one of the first artists to explore the medium in the 1960s. Typically created by one or two artists in collaboration with a printer, artists’ books can take any number of forms. Ruscha’s 1966 “Every Building on Sunset Strip,” for example, is an accordion book of photographs depicting all the buildings on each side of the Strip. At the time of publication, it cost about $15. (As the value of Ruscha’s work has gone up at auction -- one of his paintings fetched $3.5 million last year -- the book has become a collector’s item; a first edition can fetch up to $1,500.)

“Artists’ books are something that have almost been forgotten,” Ruscha says. “It’s one of the noblest art forms, but so many artists don’t think of it that way.”

Ruscha co-founded the Hamilton Press Gallery with Ed Hamilton in 1990 with the intention of doing collaborative and high craft projects, such as “Faster, Jim.”

Pettibon wanted a cohesive book, rather than an anthology of individual, disparate work, so he asked the artists to create an image within the general theme of travel or transportation. The result: 22 hand-printed lithographs and one photograph, depicting spaceships, elephants and cars, a surfer and a door-to-door salesman, among other things.

For Pettibon, collaboration was more important than authorship. He chose artists whose work he follows and likes -- many were already friends or acquaintances. The title came from a mental image of a high school couple in a car race, he says. “She is egging him on.”

The cover features an image of a hot rod that extends across the back cover. It was created by Victor Gastelum, whose work has been described as “hybrid chicanismo cool.” Inside, photographer Todd Squires contributed “Highway 1,” an hommage to Ruscha’s gas station pictures. Painter Scott Grieger’s contribution was an interstate sign that features a skull, and painter Greg Colson’s pie chart details activities during a drive. Dani Tull, who has worked in a variety of media, contributed two drawn images of the sea -- a sailor and a ship. Eddie Ruscha (son of Ed), who is also a musician, created a fantasy musical motorcycle. Francesca Gabbiani, who usually makes intricate large-scale collages, drew a colorful elephant in an oasis. Scattered throughout the book are Pettibon’s own drawings of hot-air balloons, surfers and a UFO.

“The project was unusual because it involved working with so many different artists,” says Hamilton, who printed the images. “Raymond had faith that everything would work together -- I didn’t. There were so many different styles and different ways of approaching the project.”

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After Hamilton printed the artists’ images -- by hand, each color printed separately -- the finished lithographs were sent to Kitty Marryatt, a bookmaker, who created slipcases and brushed aluminum covers, and bound the books with wire thread.

The books were then sent to Jeff Wasserman, who did the silk-screening and spray-painting of the slipcase artwork by Pettibon and Gastelum -- a drawing of a blimp exploding against an electrical plant, in which almost every part of the image is dark. “I asked Raymond if he wanted to do the rest of it” -- the background, says Gastelum. “He just buried me. It was just black. I was very happy with it.”

Since the book is a journey of sorts -- by land, water and air -- each print had a logical place, Hamilton says, and “Raymond’s text and the theme of travel unifies it.”


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