Lari Pittman’s “Declaration of Independence”

Travis Diehl

December 3, 2019
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
September 29, 2019–January 5, 2020

Lari Pittman’s resonant retrospective at the Hammer in Los Angeles impresses first with the filigreed intricacy of his paintings, second with their special monotony. Three decades of work spills forth in the bold colors of commercial signage, splashed with decorative motifs—Victorian cameos, arrows, tipping pots, teardrops of various fluids, and the accoutrements of Enlightenment science. The more things change, the more they resemble the past. A carousel or color wheel of eighteenth-century silhouettes rolls through a garden of giant roses in This Amusement, Beloved and Despised, Continues Regardless (1989), as the figures paint on easels or hold measured discussions; a man in the lower right corner exposes his cock. Their human shapes presage the disarticulated dummies or robots that clatter across the compositions of the series “Grisaille, Ethics & Knots” (2016), where the colors give way to apocalyptic chrome, white, and warning-light red. Pittman’s paintings reiterate a history of individual styles: all-over expressionism, minimalist structure, constructivist design, mannerist embellishment, and, emulsifying all, postmodern pastiche.

Still, the dense chemistry of each individual painting burns through the overall clutter. The chronological hang at the Hammer delivers an increasing avalanche of strokes and stencils, but also reveals the tight interplay of small differences between individual works. An early group, from the mid-1980s, churns the signifiers of heterosexual, reproductive love, and the genteel relations of the sexes through lewdly instructive anatomy in oranges and blues. Each is titled with a variation on This _____, Beloved and Despised, Continues Regardless: this entertainment, this discussion, this wholesomeness, this landscape, and so on—to which one could add this country, this civilization, this progress. A litany of parlor pursuits unspools through a diagrammatic web of arrows and bubbles, the small figures homuncular within piles of translucent blobs. The retrospective format reiterates the dire emphasis of Pittman’s title, a sort of painters’ motto: he Continues Regardless.

The cumulative effect of these series can be luxurious in itself. Nowhere else but a Pittman survey will you see an entire gallery hung with nothing but eight vibrating, jagged compositions featuring, in crisp sign-painter’s hand, the number 69. This is Pittman at his most pleasurable: the spunky buildup of enamel comprising the Dickensian pair of melting candles in Transfigurative and Needy (1991), the hallucinatory burnt green hatchmarks of an owl’s labial rings of feathers in Ameliorative and Needy of that same year. Pittman virtuosically executes traditions, as in, he decapitates them, graphically, violently. Yet the compositions do not take their edges lightly. The paintings are contained, formalized, like the serial imagery embedded in the lenses of sniper rifles and microscopes in the “Late American Impaerium,” a more recent series (c. 2013), or the telling early painting The New Republic (1985), an image of a large intestine hung like a garland over a spooky and thick early-American landscape in the mode, but not the palette, of naive expansionism: black cliffs against a night-blue sea.

It would seem that nothing has been held back. But then, there is the talismanic restraint of Pittman’s artist’s books, such as “A History of Human Nature” (2017), clothbound in candy colors on special stands. The set reprises the tight, obsessive paintings on panel, only in mixed-media paintings on paper, each book following a theme and a palette—“The Nature of Entrapment,” reads one in teal; “The Nature of Remorse” in bone. As a counterpoint to the exploded-open works on the walls, Pittman’s books signal that there are symbols here not meant to be decoded—or, in the cases where the pages are available on a touchscreen, that their tactility at least is meant to be withheld. Have You Seen… (1991) is a particularly lavish example, a unique artist’s book with text by novelist Dennis Cooper. It sits on a pedestal, propped open, fitted to an acrylic stand. On the left page of the visible spread is a passage about anal sex, scent, and time; on the right, a big, orange number 69 ringed by a short letter: “Dear Dennis, How do I find meaning? Sincerely, Lari.” You have to stoop to make out, even a little, the elaborately skinned cover, concealed by its own shadow; the rest of the book, effectively and literally, is closed. This is the threat inherent to Pittman’s surfeit of detail—that this crazed attempt at the impossibility of perfect knowledge lands instead in sweeping, menacing variety, a violent and gorgeous and sublingual state.

Painting, Sexuality & Eroticism, Postmodernism

Travis Diehl lives in New York. He is a recipient of the Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.

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Hammer Museum
December 3, 2019

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