Voluntary Complexity 

And the aesthetics of paranoia: Joe Coleman, the Clayton Brothers and Lari Pittman

Thursday, Nov 20 2003
Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Now more than ever, paranoid ways of seeing the world are seeming less far out — sometimes barely staying ahead of the curve of unlikely conspiracies come true. I’ve always felt there was a very strong connection between art and paranoia. The word paranoia suggests a parallel way of knowing the world, which is essentially what art offers. And I’ve known plenty of artists who think everyone’s out to get them or that they are in communication with great artists of the past. But art doesn’t have to depict Cheney and Rove with their humanoid latex masks removed, controlling the Dubyabot from their Antarctic bunker (although that’s nice too) in order to qualify as paranoiac. True paranoid art maps and mimics the grandiose narcissism and elaborate schematization of the mental pathology in its formal qualities and processes, detailing the elaborate models created to try and reconcile the frightening and often contradictory information with which we are continually bombarded.

Joe Coleman, A Picture from Life’s Other Side (Detail), 1998

One of the great contemporary paranoids — both as an artist and a mal vivant — was in town recently as the subject of a lavish new book and a documentary film. Joe Coleman is a familiar figure in the Juxtapoz/Outsider art world, known both for his subversive performance work in the ’80s, where he would strap explosives to his body and blow himself up at square parties (as recounted in the seminal Pranks issue of Re/Search), and for his painstaking, iconic portraits of colorful historical figures like Charlie Manson and P.T. Barnum, usually surrounded by a seething accumulation of pictures and text that catalog a dizzying array of human curiosities and (more frequently) atrocities. In a work like As You Look Into the Eye of the Cyclops, So the Eye of the Cyclops Looks Into You (2003), for example, there are over 80 individual subjects — ranging from Ernie Kovaks to Jeffrey Dahmer, surrounding the central grouping that clusters Manson, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and George Bush around an Indian-head TV test pattern and Jon-Benet’s battered, sightless body being born to immortality by the Little Rascals.

Works this elaborate need patience to unravel and fully appreciate. The Book of Joe, published by La Luz de Jesus and Last Gasp, reproduces 17 recent works in elaborate detail, even providing 28 pages of interpretive keys. Coleman is a case unto himself — his sincere obsession with the underbelly of the human condition and his meticulous technique (he spends about six months applying paint with a single-hair brush, using jeweler’s goggles to maximize the detail) put him in a category above most other artists addressing the same “shocking” subject matters.

Clatyon Brothers, Six Foot Eleven (detail), 2003

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A milder form of this paranoid brew is now on view at La Luz’s exhibition space, in the form of the Clayton Brothers’ ingeniously site-specific painting Six Foot Eleven, a continuous panoramic phantasmagoria of the Art Center illustration gurus’ sumptuous, faux-naive picture-making. Covering a 2-foot band of every available wall space of La Luz’s gallery, the painting ostensibly contains the fictional narrative of one Charles Murphy. The Murphy character looks like a ’50s salaryman but, judging from the giant fluorescent wildlife, skull-headed monsters and filigree overlaid patterns hovering everywhere, he spent the majority of his life wacked on the brown acid. This cryptic hallucinatory quality gives Six Foot Eleven plenty of paranoiac edge — the sense of a complex unifying narrative lying just below the candy-colored but ominous surface. The Claytons (Rob and Christian) wear their influences on their sleeves, the most prominent being the Helter Skelterisms of Manuel Ocampo and especially Lari Pittman, whose decorative owls, silhouettes, ornamental linework and olde-Western typography are freely re-borrowed here. The unrepentant appropriation of these and more primary visionary folk-art motifs undermines the Claytons’ authenticity somewhat, but the utter profusion of eye and brain candy allows you to take what you like from this all-you-can-eat image buffet without worrying much about how nourishing it may or may not be.


Lari Pittman’s own new show at Regen Projects is among his best ever, reminiscent of his early, highly decorative work of the mid-’80s, while subtly incorporating much of the confrontational tone he explored over the last decade. Retaining the trickle-down domestic vocabularies that have clattered across his surfaces for the last 20 years, these six new works are suddenly devoid of obvious human figures (except for a single monstrous armored robot and a couple of disembodied eyes) and words (down to the titles — what had been increasingly and intentionally unwieldy captions like Optimal Setting for Atmospheric Conditions That Can Induce Melancholia in the Male are now uniformly Untitled). There are no silhouettes, no dripping candles, no Windows clip art, no cheesy Western fonts, and only two birds — neither of which is an owl.

The narrative complexity remains, but instead of experimenting with a dissonant grafting of linear and nonlinear motifs, most of these stories feel contained and integrated — though they remain unintelligible. In one sense this might seem like a retreat: Since around 1990, when he pretty much had his Victorian-silhouette shtick nailed, Pittman began incorporating increasingly awkward material — credit-card logos, hair-salon signage, low-rent computer graphics — into what had been an elegant (if perverse) self-contained universe. Misleadingly cheerful (“Go Girl! Grab it by the tail!”) or directly confrontational (“Hey! F.Y.”) slogans assaulted the viewer. The convoluted narrative layers already at play in the Victoriana were splayed across sequential panels that emphasized their impenetrability while upping the aggressive urgency of the content.

In contrast, Pittman’s new body of work seems almost serene. There’s a preponderance of browns, oranges and pinks — a queasy but comforting palette of poo and Pepto-Bismol. There are landscapes, bits of architecture, and many pieces of ugly-ass as-is furniture commingling with less recognizable forms and areas of pure pattern (Pittman is easily the most formidable contemporary inheritor of the Pattern & Decoration mantle). And there is the return to compositional coherence and density. But in eliminating the words and pictures, what Pittman has managed (and it’s about time) is to kick away the critical crutches by which his work has been widely misunderstood — most annoyingly as some kind of agenda-driven queer agitprop. Catch phrases and pictograms are all well and good, but they provide people with a far too easy escape from the profound doubt and anxiety (not to mention the sheer pleasure and lessons in spatio-temporal simultaneity) generated by Pittman’s virtuosic formal instincts.

This is not to say that the content has been removed, only the uppermost patina of frantic semiotics. The ambiguities of meaning have been allowed to sink down and merge with the visual ambiguities of Pittman’s shifting, perilous spaces. Furthermore, these works possess a new sobriety. As much of the frenetic energy and narcissism of the intervening work has been linked to the artist’s personal epiphany of violence (when he was shot by a burglar in 1985), so this new body of work seems to be confronting the burgeoning culture of violence in post-9/11 America. Soothingly dumpy color schemes and relatively sane illusionistic spaces aside, these paintings address violence relentlessly, with knives, swords, battle-axes and numerous other militaristic flourishes popping up throughout the shattered and bedraggled domestic detritus. At times over the last decade, it has seemed as if Pittman was struggling to find a vocabulary that could resolve his sense of personal and political isolation. Perhaps he discovered the obvious: Sometimes you just have to wait until everyone is as paranoid as you.

ROB CLAYTON & CHRISTIAN CLAYTON: SIX FOOT ELEVEN, mixed-media installation | La Luz de Jesus Gallery, 4633 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz; (323) 666-7667 | Through November 30

LARI PITTMAN: NEW WORK | Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive, West Hollywood; (310) 276-5424 | Through December 20

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