The first time I saw the work of Lari Pittman was at the multiple-careers-making “Helter Skelter” show at MOCA in 1992, and I didn’t care for it. This was the era of his menacing sexualized owls, meticulously built-up psychedelic reliefs of dripping white candles, and circus-font repetitions of the number 69. In spite of their obvious craftsmanship and manifest fluency with a wide swath of the history of visual culture, the paintings’ sense of contained (if provocative) energies — not to mention the unironic deployment of such a conventional medium as acrylic and enamel on rectangular mahogany panels — made them seem out of step with such eruptive gestures as Paul McCarthy’s tree-fucking robot and Nancy Rubins’ roof-high mushroom-cloud tangle of trailers and hot-water heaters. Pittman’s work seemed a quirky vestige of the previous decade’s Reaganomic love affair with “New Image” painting, not the shape of things to come.
In spite of a brief, choppy teacher-student relationship at UCLA during the same period, I was won over considerably by the sheer audacity of his output over the next several years — particularly the series A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation (1992–1995), which remains his most confrontational body of work, with his often-challenging palette and already-frantic compositional structures careening into an ecumenical hysteria, his pictorial content incorporating full-frontal Visa and MasterCard logos, nooses made of intestines (referencing the artist’s near-fatal abdominal gunshot wound during a 1985 robbery), and puppets waving placards reading, “Hey!,” “F.Y.,” “S.O.S.” and “R.I.P.”
But Pittman’s 1996 Howard Fox–curated survey show at LACMA was a real epiphany. Part of it was contextual — the ’90s were now half over, and most of what L.A. (and New York and Europe) was throwing at the wall paintingwise just wasn’t sticking. The neo-expressionists had burrowed underground for a decade (note: they’re baaaack), and most of the hot new paint stars were producing art-historical one-liners that seemed like flat, poorly rendered fragments of one of Pittman’s complex compositions. Mostly, though, it was the work itself. Particularly his early biomorphic abstractions, which, while generally as busily designed as his later picto-narrative work, were often devoid of words and contained only the slightest of illusionistic references — usually to vague landscapes, vegetative pods or sundry domestic accouterments.
Seeing a decade’s worth of the intricate, increasingly specific compositions en masse and in sequence, I had a sudden insight into what Pittman was getting at. It wasn’t some deliberately frustrating allegorical puzzle, or some queer and spangled Trojan horse trying to (heavens!) sneak homoerotic content into fine-art discourse, or some manifesto on the vast, still-untapped reserves of popular decorative visual culture. It was the sum of these, and much more.
And much less. What Pittman was getting at was exactly what you got: these singular, verbally irresolvable visual gestalts. Granted, each painting implies an approximately infinite web of tangential conceptual narratives underpinning its final configuration — and articulating its reception in the world. But that is merely collateral fallout to their function as exercises in accommodation. Like many of his surrogates in the pictures, Pittman performs a high-wire act, juggling as many disparate, discontinuous or mutually exclusive domains of visual information as he can in a single, irreducible, formally beautiful surface design.
Neither redundant nor reactionary, his embrace of conventional media and his unapologetic decorative sensuality are finally a matter of etiquette, of accommodating the viewer by pre-emptively disarming the defensiveness routinely generated by, oh, say a tree-fucking robot. As Poppy and “F.Y.” as they are, Pittman’s paintings never seem to be trying to make a fool of you, or of some hypothetical third-party schmuck who doesn’t “get it.”
What’s to get? The basic perceptual order underlying art is hard-wired — the recognition of a graphic pattern resembling a human face is considered the first step in the construction of the intellectual house of cards that is human culture. Our first layer of visual language is the language of visual design. The undifferentiated unity of our in vito sensorium is divided into darkness and light, and from this flat, colorless binary system emerges every nuance of formal and conceptual filigree that can be imagined or stumbled upon. Pittman’s work is so visually compelling because it is great design, balanced high and baroque on this minimalist physiological foundation — just like Simon Rodia, Tadanori Yokoo, Saul Bass or Mary Blair. You don’t need to “get” It’s a Small World or the title credits for The Man With the Golden Arm. You’re already there.
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Pittman’s latest body of work, enshrined until Saturday in Regen Projects’ cavernous new space (just around the corner from their old one, and try the other door), is of a piece with his last couple of shows in its increased symbolic indeterminacy (pomegranate? posterior? porthole? all of the above?) and diminished reliance on textual and sequential narrative structures. His palette has become progressively darkened and muted; the surface treatments and varieties of paint application have grown more atmospheric and have begun to foreground previously buried evidence of chance compositional elements — there’s even some drip painting! Pittman’s visual references continue to move from the hyperdetermined computer graphics and commercial signage of his pre-9/11 oeuvre toward a more rustic vocabulary of woodblock prints, Ukrainian Easter eggs and vintage Yugoslavian real estate brochures.
The plethora of works on paper — including the Hammer-acquired adventures-of-a-blue-egg series Superstition, Noise & Symbolism #1–10 (the only titled work in the show) — offer more clear, specific content. They could be Futurist Ouspenskian tarot cards or pages torn from an ornate calendar designed by Eastern European folk-primitive-quoting Modernists like Marc Chagall or Natalia Goncharova, with faux- Cyrillic text suggesting verbal language without engaging its treacherous specificity. The seven large-scale paintings dispense even further with linearity, though the complexity and dynamism of the compositions are undiminished. As always, energies are constrained, and fluids burst forth from orifices and cascade past or through translucent entities who tumble from one vertiginous plane to an equal but incompatible universe. Luminous hot spots, grayed-out Day-Glo chicken scratchings, and fried eggs jitter across the surface.
Somehow it all makes sense. In spite of the blurred semiotics, Pittman’s work still grabs, holds, orchestrates and choreographs attention in ways that are both highly pleasurable and instructive to the eye. This apparent return to his late-’80s abstract indeterminacy manages to fold in all the robust formal experimentation and noir content of the intervening years, while freeing the work from its culture-specific moorings. In a career that resembles a virtuosic balancing act, Pittman’s new work is a dazzling conflation of a hard-wired populism and conservative elitism (in the best, nurturing sense) that raises the stakes to a global level.
LARI PITTMAN | Regen Projects II, 9016 Santa Monica Blvd. | Through October 20