Lari Pittman’s momentous retrospective at Hammer Museum, is not only the most ambitious exhibition organized by the museum but arguably the most important exhibition anywhere in the country — or perhaps the world, today. This career-spanning exhibition of 80 densely layered monumental paintings and 50 vibrant works on paper ends the decade on a jubilant note because as the curator Connie Butler says, “the show is really about revelation.”
Pittman is a half-Columbian, L.A based artist who has inspired two generations of students at UCLA and captivated followers around the world with his prolific paintings, making him one of the most influential artists since the 1980s. When I asked L.A art critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp why she felt Pittman was such an important artist, she explained, “Lari Pittman is the most subversive and shocking artist working today. Instead of screaming headlines, he uses his exceptional skill as a painter of beauty. Decorative patterns and motifs camouflage his serious intent. He employs beauty to lure us into his complex stories about history, sexuality, the fragility of the human body and mysteries of the afterlife.”
Like Goya’s masterpieces, Pittman’s historic paintings of the cultural wars of his time serve a mnemonic function because they are memory aids that enable us to remember past issues that shape the present and connect new understanding to prior knowledge. This makes Pittman’s paintings an integral part of the art canon in that they foreshadow future understanding because his thinking is far ahead of his times.
Decades before a non-binary understanding of gender came into vogue, Pittman was painting trans-gendered owls and female surrogates that upturned gender binaries and advanced the fluidity of gender we understand today. Pittman drew from his bi-cultural background and bilingual understanding to explore further complexities in hybrid identity by creating multiple narratives that could be read in different directions, from the top to the bottom or from the left to the right, simultaneously. Pittman created further ambiguity by combining Latin American surrealism based on magical realism which is both magic and real. Pittman’s exploration of the aesthetics of ambiguous simultaneity foreshadows the millennial generation’s interest in visual ambiguity in the digital era, allowing younger painters like Christina Quarles to understand and embrace racial and sexual identity as not just one thing but multiple things all at once.
Pittman was also a pioneering male feminist who drew from the feminist art program at CalArts as a student in the 1970s, mentoring with Miriam Shapiro when women’s decorative art was still considered less serious than conceptual art or the heroic gestures used by male painters as an assertion of masculinity — this in an era when painting was considered dead by the avant-garde. In this way, Pittman led the way for Mike Kelly and other innovative male artists to adopt women artists’ techniques and soft materials.
In a time when homosexuality was covert, Pittman was fearlessly making overtly homosexual paintings. Pittman emphasized a phallic presence as a site of desire and love between men in 1989, an ugly time during the AIDs era when Senator Jesse Helms and other members of the religious right voiced their vicious homophobia. But his erotic phallic imagery has an intimacy and vulnerability that differentiates it from the toxic masculinity of patriarchal images of phallocentric power.
In the homophobic early nineties, women’s rights and bodies were also under patriarchal attack, and Pittman series at that time, A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation, is a shout back with imperative phrases like “Cum n’ Get it,” “Love-Sex,” “Life” and “Love!” These paintings explore ecstasy and pain during the AIDs epidemic with dark humor, juxtaposing cries like “SOS” and “RIP” with Visa and Mastercard logos and anal imagery. Untitled #9 is a phantasmagoria of transgendered bodies and dismembered body parts, which uses the letters “S.F.O.Y.S” from the phrases “Save our Souls” and “Fuck You.”
Pittman came into international stardom as part of Paul Shimmel’s acclaimed Helter Skelter exhibition at MOCA in1992, an exhibition that took the world by storm at a time when Europeans viewed American art as dystopian and abject. Although his work later received acclaim in his first mid-career survey at LACMA, curated by Howard Fox in1996, Documenta X in 1997, Venice Biennale in 2003 and four Whitney Biennales, he was still associated with the Helter Skelter “bad boy” generation for many years. However, in a recent live interview with Connie Butler at Hammer Museum, Pittman insists “I’m not interested in the abject at all.” Instead, he emphasizes that he was “trying to position my work and myself in the rubric of wellness.”
This retrospective highlights the way Pittman uses beauty as what Dohojowska-Philp calls “a lure.” Beneath the jubilant beauty might be a disturbing subtext, but it is the cacophony of color and decorative tropes that draw us into a closer reading. Pittman is an aesthete who travelled the world collecting textiles and ceramics with his husband, fellow painter Roy Dowell.
Pittman almost died in 1985 from two gun shots in his stomach, a no-doubt traumatic experience that underlies his work about mortality. Although Pittman deals with upsetting issues of death and American violence, his celebration of beauty creates a counter-balance. Pittman loves the poignance of memento mori. He decorates a series of six gourds with the words: Hope, Forgiveness, Charity, Faith, Compassion and Forgiveness as honorific memories.
In his interview with Butler, Pittman said that his paintings deal with a kind of “leakage” that “reveals itself by default.” This is seen in Spiritual and Needy, which oozes paint like leaking icing. This leakage offers a counter narrative to the “lopsided view” of, he tells us, “too much phallocentric imagery” during the AIDS crisis which he offsets with a feminine surrogate self. Pittman was the first male feminist artist to explore vaginal imagery from the perspective of a gay man who might not view the female body as a site of sexual desire but nevertheless honors the labia as his birth entrance and everyone’s entrance into the world. The vagina of a she-owl shouts, “Get Out!” in an imperative declaration against misogyny and violence as a partner’s tail appears to slide inside her.
Pittman describes his paintings as “thin skin sculptures” which he “assembles” and “cobbles together.” Even his stencils are cut out by hand. Peter Plagens once wrote, “assemblage is the first home grown California modern art” (Sunshine Muse, 1974). Pittman belongs to this Californian assemblage line which traces back to Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers. When asked why he made the Watts Towers, Rodia replied, “I wanted to do something big and I did it.” The grand scale of Pittman’s paintings also parallels the big thinking of assemblage artists who made large experiential environments.
Pittman made a scale model of the gallery spaces to sequence works, sometimes as they appeared when they were first shown in a gallery: like Orangerie, shown at Regen Projects former space in 2010. These delightful works on paper of citrus trees bought inside from the frost, postpone the inevitability of death in a celebration of the folly in architectural arrogance.
The artworks are arranged to speak to each other through recurring leitmotifs building up to the most theatrical room with three monumental Flying Carpet paintings from a 2013 exhibition at Regen Projects, with tables of beautiful large handmade books. These master paintings are based on art deco needlepoint rugs, which also resemble prayer rugs with weapons on the borders. Pittman combines decorative arts with violence not to aestheticize violence but to reference what is missing from the lopsided view of violence in the historic timeline, from western religious paintings to sensationalist Quentin Tarantino films, by adding things which have not been seen in this context. As Butler writes in the exhibition catalogue, “polyphonic style is Pittman’s signature.”
Pittman’s love of text is evident in his complex titles, witty arrangement of words in double entendres and love of making large handmade books. The cultural riddles in his literary titles function as a conceptual springboard for the visual organization of his paintings which gives them a hyperbolic quality. As Helen Molesworth writes in the exhibition catalogue, “Like high tea, a Pittman painting is a carefully orchestrated aesthetic event.”
This breathtaking exhibition and scholarly catalogue position Pittman in the canon as a visionary artist who not only creates the most important visual chronology of the cultural issues of his time with unparalleled poetic profundity but also foreshadows future thinking. Pittman is, indeed, the quintessential L.A artist whose expansive vision reflects the futuristic metropolis he inhabits.
Lita Barrie is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Barrie’s writing has appeared in a wide range of magazines and newspapers in New Zealand and Los Angeles, including Hyperallergic, HuffPost, art ltd, Artweek, and Art New Zealand. An archive of her writing is held at the New Zealand National Library. To read more of her work, visit www.litabarrie.com