THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
I’ve started to dread painting shows—this despite the fact that I always found it the most seductive medium. I’m forming a hangover from a relentless amount of likable but empty paintings. I myself am guilty of indulging in unmotivated paintings—how they flirt with trend or beauty enough to hold space temporarily but ultimately have the shelf life of an Instagram post before fading into the amalgam of gradients and witty pastiches. I’ve fallen for many soft gradients, for crisp and consumable one-hitters. Still, I often leave an exhibition in a soft haze, the work lacking enough friction to spark any opinion at all. I worry that this amiable but faceless work is rhyming with a larger feeling of political weariness and a renewed desire for escapism. The evaporation rate of these thin works has made me reconsider the difference between seeing a painting I like and one that has real presence. Hoping to be revived, I visited the Hammer Museum’s retrospective of longtime UCLA faculty member and Angelino painter Lari Pittman. I found that even when it’s not pleasurable, “Declaration of Independence” has a sense of purpose that makes the paintings stick to your bones.
Anything but uninspired, the paintings themselves are conceptually and formally propelled by dense compositions and symbolic systems that play on combining delight and disgust. At times, I felt physically disoriented by staring into a single work. My eye kept getting tangled in a maze of graphic forms, bits of language, and evocative layers of color. Each work reflects the overstimulation of its cultural moment, each heavy with history and tragedy. But I’m relieved that rather than building a cacophony that amounts to nihilism, these works seem deeply invested in living in the now.
Organized chronologically, the retrospective spreads throughout all of the Hammer’s main exhibition spaces. Its layout and footprint underscore the considerable length of Pittman’s career. Viewers are guided through the highlights and motivations of each moment, distinguishing a new era in the artist’s evolution. Every room is packed with paintings while still offering a satisfying amount of space to explore the persistence of Pittman’s drawing practice. Even though you will feel the density, the Hammer avoids claustrophobia. You could spend your entire visit in one chapter of Pittman’s work; honestly, you could spend hours dissecting and untangling one painting.
Lari Pittman, This Wholesomeness, Beloved and Despised, Continues Regardless, 1990. Acrylic and enamel on mahogany. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Lari Pittman, courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
For example, I kept falling into the 1990 painting This Wholesomeness, Beloved and Despised, Continues Regardless, as it showcases how the artist’s play weaves between complex formal games and an emerging political vocabulary that was already forming at the beginning of his career. A pattern of hot pink arrows pushes and pulls the viewer’s eye into the composition. A radiating target zeros in on two androgynous silhouettes, creating a red glow where they touch. The use of profiles here brings to mind a dusty Americana of cameos and formal portraiture, queered by Pittman’s use of violence, sex, and dark humor. He employs the form to challenge ideas of American propriety, possibly inspiring the infamous silhouetted figures of Kara Walker. But Pittman uses this reference in a constellation of other elements, complicating them with 69s, decontextualized objects, layers of colorful abstractions, and delicate linework that gives the sense that we have x-ray vision into this world. Pittman never shies away from adornment or decoration, adding filigree to every curve and frame of a composition’s central narrative. Arrows, concentric circles, latticework, and organic lines shift your eyes between layers that are interrupted or enhanced by expert color relationships. Pittman is a maestro of primary visual language and uses this power to its fullest extent. Color and line quality are performing at full capacity here, commanding your attention and creating endless surprising relationships that take time to discover.
From beginning to end, the exhibition digs into overarching themes in Pittman’s life and his interest in critiquing civilizations of violence, all while referencing identity, personal trauma, and a fascination with language. Memento Mori, a series of painted gourds that bear the delicately scripted virtues Charity, Compassion, Faith, Forgiveness, Hope, and Kindness, stood out to me as a succinct expression of the emotional content of Pittman’s work. The organic forms repeat in several paintings as another symbol in a broad repertoire, but as objects, the gourds become phallic, bodily—tired. The carefully painted script uncannily recalls historical penmanship or decorative texts that communicate authority.
Contextual information throughout the exhibition halls points to the influence of Cal Arts and its Feminist Art Program (FAP) on Pittman. Here he developed an interest in incorporating the language of craft into his work, which allowed him to value his personal life as a valid path of political inquiry. Here, you can learn about the contexts in which Pittman began his long career. He has made increasingly queer work under the shadow of the AIDS crisis, hostile presidential administrations, and personally traumatic episodes. The result is Pittman’s incomparable ability to encode the depth of contradicting American narratives and a personal relationship to a violent world in each painting.
The most gripping work on view is Pittman’s suite from 2013—The Flying Carpet Series. The three mural-sized works hang across from one another in an offset gallery. Each one commands attention. Their titles: Flying Carpet with a Waning Moon Over a Violent Nation, Flying Carpet with Petri Dishes for a Disturbed Nation, and Flying Carpet with Magic Mirrors for a Distorted Nation. These are at once succinct descriptions but also riddles that folds back into Pittman’s visual labyrinth. Each word, mark, or color leads you deeper into his vocabulary. Each painting prominently features oculi in the center of the composition. They read as gun scopes, the eyes of microscopes, or the reflections of mirrors.
Lari Pittman, Flying Carpet with a Waning Moon Over a Violent Nation, 2013. Cel-Vinyl and spray paint on canvas over wood. Collection of Maurice and Paul Marciano Art Foundation. © Lari Pittman, courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles
The portals, while depicted in various ways, are mesmerizing, anchoring compositions that feel like they are materializing for just a moment before your eyes but at any moment may fall apart. The standout, Flying Carpet with a Waning Moon Over a Violent Nation, makes it difficult to remain grounded on any one plane. Five red scopes set blurry focus on a generalized landscape reminiscent of the American West. A moon wanes in the sequential panes. The fading moon and its relationship to the ominous crosshairs are haunted by three nooses that hide in plain sight. Every color and line in this work interrupts and redirects another. Even with a bright red rectangle defining the orientation of the canvas, you feel yourself losing balance. The combination of decoration, diabolical formal relationships, and quotations of America’s historical violence make the work vibrate.
“Declaration of Independence” is about America, and it is about Lari Pittman. It delights in the decorative but also in revealing the violence from which decoration distracts. There is unapologetic pleasure in these paintings as well as a psychic, traumatic pain. I can’t think of any work that so well depicts simultaneity of the self and the national, the indulgent and the sacrificial, and a political self that looks inward as well as outward.
Sara Rouse is an artist and writer living and working in Chicago. She received her B.F.A from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012 and her M.F.A. from the University of Chicago in 2015. Follow her work at www.sararouse.com and on Instagram @sararouse.
“Lari Pittman: Declaration of Independence” is at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through January 5th, 2020.
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