Looking at the Regen Projects fall lineup, which kicks off with exhibitions of work by Lari Pittman in both of Regen's West Hollywood spaces, one might wonder if the gallery and the artist aren't trying to make some kind of case, and if these two shows, titled "New Paintings" and "Orangerie," couldn't be collectively titled something like "Why Lari Still Matters." The question of the ongoing relevance and vitality of Pittman's practice — which since the 1980s has made a major contribution to the larger case for why painting still matters, and which has made the artist among the most locally, nationally and internationally respected ever to emerge from Los Angeles — is of the sort that follows anyone, in any field, who has done so well and for so long. The more times an individual has caught our eye, or gotten us really thinking, it seems, oddly, the more we wonder if there's anything left to see or say.
I remember that kind of sentiment buzzing in art chatter leading up to Pittman's last big show at Regen Projects II, in 2007 — 20 years after the first and 10 years after the last of four Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial exhibitions in which his work has been included. Pittman answered wondering minds with an ambitious (even for him) exhibition of 10 large paintings and a slew of works on paper that demonstrated yet another evolutionary leap in his practice involving an increased spatial complexity, greater utilization of atmospheric effects and plays of transparency and opacity, and a more expressionistic approach to figuration. As it turns out, that effort — so jaw-dropping that it was hard to think of it as anything other than a culminating achievement — was something of a beta test for what he's offering up this time around.
While detractors might mutter that a Pittman is a Pittman is a Pittman, to do so is to rely on a reduction of multiple bodies of work and career phases to a common denominator of cacophonous yet ordered compositions characterized by hothouse mania and an abundance of decoration. To make such a reduction of Pittman's oeuvre is to miss the twists and turns that one really can see when afforded the opportunity to view many years' worth of his work. (One career-scanning opportunity will present itself in a monograph to be released by Rizzoli next spring, and with luck, Eli Broad, who's been sampling Pittman's output since the mid-'80s, will find a nice corner of his future museum to share his Pittman holdings with Los Angeles and the world.)
Over the years, Pittman's imagery has drawn from and mimicked material from pages alpha to omega of the unabridged lexicon of visual culture, while his stylistics have shifted wherever the artist has needed them to go in relation to the imagery — whether to provide a kind of embedded stylistic footnote or citation as to the sourcing of material, or to place something like air quotation marks around nuggets of camp, or to dot the i and cross the t of a particular visual phrasing. Along the way, Pittman's narrative structures have varied from sweeping scenes to vignettes, from wide-open dramas to sidebars, with occasional forays into the character sketch, the free-associative montage and, sometimes, something almost like heraldry.
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Precisely contrary to the reduction of the practice to some base formula, Pittman's oeuvre — due to what is no doubt a combination of both comfort with change and willed anti-stagnation — is ever-evolving, and yet when one is looking, there's never a doubt that a work from 2010 is of the same mind, eye and hand that generated a work from 2000, or 1990, or 1980. They're all signature Pittman, and surprisingly for an artist whose work is so laden with imagery and drenched in style, the signature lies more in sensibility and approach.
Pittman's is a world that is always ripe, raw, burgeoning and gushing. His tonal and attitudinal address, redress and undressing of that world functions on sliding scales between the hopeful and the despairing, the utopian and the dystopian, the decorous and the indecorous, with neither end of any duality, dichotomy or opposition ever given free rein to operate in the absence of the other. Meanwhile, his staggering formal acumen — which can be lost upon those who equate formal rigor with consistency and austerity, and therefore can't see it beneath Pittman's stylistic and imagistic promiscuity and often barnacled ornamentation — continues to gain steam and nuance. This arguably is the real story of growth during the span of Pittman's career, given that most of his other smarts seem to have been pretty fully formed from the time he was hatched out of UCLA and CalArts in the 1970s.
Such is the secret of Pittman's longevity — of his ability to hold the center when nothing much holds anymore. Despite the deeply personal aspects of his work, despite the sometimes confessional (sometimes even signed not like a painting but like a letter) airs they take, while they have always been of that distinctive eye, mind and hand, they have never been about Lari with an I. Instead, Pittman is an artist of the good timing, constitution and sense to be an artist for his age. As his latest work attests, he has the combination of empathy and intelligence to relate to the conflictedness and anxiousness of the epoch that formed him; to process it and make something of it even if not necessarily solving its riddles; to keep steadfast and maintain a sense of urgency while avoiding panic; and to realize how meaning is made no less of pictures, words and looks than of framing, layering, positioning and the plays of margin and center, foreground and background. With a compositional and spatial complexity unparalleled in his previous work, informing a narrative structure that seems more about immersion and surround than about scanning, reading and the tension between the linear and nonlinear, Pittman's latest works are as unnerving, and have as much nerve, as anything he's produced, and provide a full rationale, once again, for why his work warrants our attention.
REGEN PROJECTS | 633 N. Almont Drive, L.A., and REGEN PROJECTS II, 9016 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. | Sept. 11-Oct. 23 | Reception Sat., Sept. 11, 6-8 p.m.