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Bent Out Of Shape: Exploring Gumby
In Raymond Pettibon's Drawings
investigations into the psychic pliability between artist and clay character
pettibon2017.jpg

Excerpts from Bent Out of Shape:
 

Animation and Materiality
Gumby himself is a “media figure," that is, a figure whose performance is made possible through technological mediation. Early cartoons such as Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Art Clokey’s Gumby were original productions made possible only through media. Pettibon directly references this in a colorful drawing from 2010, Untitled (No Finish Line). In the drawing, Gumby is shown carrying a rather grotesque rendering of Pokey (his sidekick horse) who sports an enlarged, deformed head and a gruesome toothy smile. A multiplicity of texts surround the page calling attention to the claymation method that animates Art Clokey's original character: “No finish line”; “Stop action. No photo finish." The oldest of animation methods, the illusion of movement in stop-action animation occurs frame by frame in a series of incremental changes that are photographed and recorded in the figure, then sped up in projection to reflect a seamless fluid motion. The animator possesses the technological power to implant a spirit within the inanimate object. The choice of material and technical processes demarcate branches of animation that include both two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms including cut-outs, drawings, puppets, clay and actual real objects (among others).

The slash technique was one of the first methods developed in the traditional animation process to eliminate redrawing images that didn’t require movement. It involved cutting around the original drawing of a figure so that through careful composition, other drawings could be interlaid on top and sped up in the recording process to create a fluid motion.[i] The technique was supplanted by a faster​ technique in the form of cel animation, where a series of drawings were instead interlaid onto transparent “cels” onto a single background drawing. The assembly line character of the mechanically produced method, where divisions of labor are separated between storyboard, background, and cleanup artists, allowed for the rise and consolidation of the cel technique. In contrast, stop-action animation “continues to be a medium that resists divisions of labor.”[ii]  Clay animation is a type of stop-action animation that uses plasticine. In stop-action animation, the manipulation takes place in front of the camera usually by the hands of a single animator. 
 

The mechanism of industrial techniques that underlie the production of cartoons is an important distinction in Pettibon's drawing practice. That Gumby was a product of clay animation is especially salient. Clay animation is a labor-intensive, expensive process as sculpted clay has to be continually re-photographed and reformed in order to simulate motion. However, it is distinctly through the technological process of its making that an original cartoon is produced, so that, in contrast to the mechanical reproductions of comic strips (think Roy Lichtenstein's adaptation of BenDay dots), animation stands as a uniquely individualized practice of the animator. In fact, in early episodes of Gumby, the indexical marks of thumbprints or pinch-marks were visible in the clay.[iii]  Pettibon’s use of Gumby trades on the open and individualized character of Gumby’s actual animation process. 

 


Alter-Egos: Gumby and Reading Practice
As art critic Arthur Danto posits in his book Transfiguration of the Commonplace, art acts as a stimulant that engages in a special mode of perception beyond basic visual processes. It invites and sustains the viewer’s cognitive faculties because art allows the viewer to see deeper into a subject (unlike mere representations which simply assert fact). Pettibon’s artistic practice conveys what Danto identifies as some of the conditions differentiating an artwork and object, namely that artwork is in operation within a rhetorical, enthymematic structure, and that structure is what engages a participatory relationship between the artist and the viewer. Where an artwork projects some attitude, (albeit in Pettibon’s case the attitudes expressed are often ambiguous and unstable), Danto believes it is one of the conditions of artworks that it is operational by means of elliptical metaphor, specifically through enthymemes. An enthymeme is a truncated syllogism with a missing premise; what is important in the structure of metaphorical ellipses is the elucidatory task of the viewer to fill in the gap themselves.[iv]

 

While Danto’s book leaves little consideration for the variety of interpretations viewers may have to a given work, Pettibon places the viewer in an active, participatory role to produce the meaning in a work of art: “The mind has a tendency to make associations or fill in the gaps and each person does that differently. I like it when other people bring in their own view.”[v]  The disjointed quotes and text in Pettibon’s drawings that use different syntaxes and tones produce an aphasic effect. Pettibon makes clear the dynamic nature of meaning-making by accepting the fact that artworks (whether literary or visual) are mediated and partial sources of knowledge. In this distinction, Pettibon positions reader and writer on equal grounds by destabilizing the meaning of pre-existing narratives. Gumby acts as a conduit for which Pettibon can perform his artistic method. Both figures invoke the viewer/reader in the creative process as a constituent element of the picture:


            [Gumby’s] a figure I go back to again and again.  He’d physically be able to go directly through the cover of the book and
            become part of the story.  He becomes part of the text and is able to change it as he likes.  So that’s what I do at least in

            some way.  I mean the text is a living thing, an applicable thing.  Everyone brings themselves into this, everyone has their
            own reading of anything.  That’s the reason why Gumby has resonance to me especially.[vi]


Pettibon’s drawing practice is open so as to provide agency for the viewer/reader, while also embodying a thematic territory critical of the mythologies of the heroic author. Pettibon seeks to recover obscured voices so as to allow for contradictory, often “untranslatable” voices and visions to emerge. In doing so, he challenges the idea of the monolithic author as a transcendent figure and the creator of dominant narrative structures.

 

[i] Wallace Carlson was a pioneering American animator and comic strip artist.  In 1919, he created the short film demonstrating the slash technique in animation.

 “How Animation Cartoons Are Made,” YouTube video, 9:53, posted by “Jerry Beck,” October 2, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7W2KItoS3Ww.

[ii] Michael Frierson, “Clay animation comes out of the inkwell,” in A Reader in Animation Studies (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), 83.
[iii] “Moving Images Goes ‘Gumby!’” Museum of the Moving Image, accessed April 26, 2014, http://www.premavision.com/news/press_release_6_1_05.htm.

[iv] Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 165-172.

[v] Lynn Kost, Raymond Pettibon: Whuytuyp (Zurich, JPR Ringier, 2012), 12.

[vi] Ibid., 18.

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