Legendary Los Angeles-based graphic painter Lari Pittman’s kaleidoscopic bust portraits and textile-inspired abstracts currently on display at Hollywood’s Regen Projects plunge into the fabric of the subconscious mind. Marking the artist’s eighth solo exhibition at the gallery, these surreal, psychedelic images beg the viewer to consider the connection between the portrait and the still-life, the personal and the universal.
These frenetic, cacophonous visions ooze spirituality through a suffusion of divinely-inspired geometric patterns and shapes, including mandalas, diamonds, and grids. Here Pittman also unites a myriad of different influences, including Victorian silhouettes and Mexican folk art to craft his ornate aesthetic.
Titled Pathos, Ethos, Logos, Kairos after Aristotle’s famed modes of persuasion, Pittman’s cel-vinyl portraits defy simple classification. These elusive, half-human, half-alien hybrids look slightly bizarre, like Vincent Van Gogh’s La Berceuse (Augustine Roulin) portrait from 1889. There is genuinely something offbeat, something otherworldly about these faces. However, they also feel eerily familiar, as if one has seen them somewhere before, perhaps in an art history textbook or a dream. Although their expressions reveal boredom and fatigue, the artist bathes these subjects in vibrant hues and extravagant geometrical embellishment. The viewer does not know where to look as both the backgrounds and foregrounds here demand attention.
Meanwhile, Pittman’s textile paintings replicate the look and feel of specific types of fabric, including brocade, taffeta, silk, and toile. Even the repeated graphic structure of the images mirror the woven construction of these respective fibers. On top of these mesmerizing patterns, Pittman also includes a range of cryptic symbols, some violent and some harmonious, such as nooses, hatchets, and keys.
As Pittman pairs each portrait with a much-larger textile abstract, the viewer immediately begins to seek connections between the two and finds tremendous overlap in the use of color, shape, and symbols. With each pair’s similar palette, tone, and skeletal structure, it is clear that these soulmate-like images share a psychic bond.
In 2018’s Portrait of a Human (Pathos, Ethos, Logos, Kairos #7), we witness an abundance of clashing patterns, including squares, stripes, chevrons, and vegetation. We also find discord in the many incompatible hues here, including pastel pink, crimson, dusty yellow, jet black, and grey.
The female figure at the center of this image dons an elaborate, multi-layered head wrapping similar to the one in Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). Here, the subject resembles a Byzantine Madonna, a high priestess, and a nomadic queen. Even her veil looks like a tent bolstered by two intricately decorated poles.
Here Pittman makes the building blocks of the scene visible. He also reveals the underlying stripes and triangles encompassing the woman’s face, just like in Pablo Picasso’s Cubist works. The regal motif of this image also continues with the subject wearing a Victorian-inspired choker complete with a pendant depicting an unknown crowned woman in profile. Through this fascinating inclusion, the artist asks the viewer to consider the lovely and inspiring notion of queens supporting and admiring each other across space and time.
In #7’s companion piece, 2018’s Portrait of a Textile (Brocade), Pittman again emulates the elaborate floral patterns of brocade, a luxurious silk fabric historically reserved for royal households. Like some esoteric tarot card image, the composition is broken up into repeated, rectangular vignettes featuring visual references to both sunflowers and axes. The combination of these two striking symbols likely alludes the fact that many powerful queens throughout history met violent ends.
However, 2018’s Portrait of a Human (Pathos, Ethos, Logos, Kairos #11) offers a far more optimistic outlook. This scene presents a woman with a moss-colored face and piercing, saffron-hued eyes. Her apathetic gaze refuses to meet the viewer’s. An off-white diamond shape rests gently on her third eye as countless others radiate outwards from her head like a halo. On her tunic, Pittman paints many competing stripes and chevrons in similarly vibrant yellow and green hues. Additionally, elaborately decorated Easter eggs symbolizing renewal, fertility, and rebirth hide in the foreground and background as the artist overlays a ghostly, genderless face on top of the subject’s midsection.
This verdant color palette, effervescent mood, and emphasis on literal and spiritual growth also extend into #11’s partner piece, 2018’s Portrait of a Textile (Art-Deco Toile de Jouy). Traditionally, a toile refers to a linen of French origin featuring idyllic, pastoral scenes in a range of pastel shades. However, Pittman again separates his repeating images into rectangular, tarot card-like shapes. Supporting this connection, every second scene here features a sprouting plant that resembles the Ace of Wands. This age-old symbol of a flame flanked by two snakes epitomizes ideas of creation, inspiration, power, and new beginnings. Appropriately, the artist chooses to pair this occult emblem with depictions of a barrel-vaulted ceiling, likely referring to the birth canal. Superimposed on top of these illustrations, Pittman includes three rows of antique golden keys. With their rounded handles, they echo the shape of the Ace of Wands symbol and help reveal the path to wisdom and enlightenment.
Through the highly personal yet universal imagery of tarot cards, this iconic painter underscores the timeless nature of artistic symbolism and reveals that we are all threads in a divine tapestry.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.