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COVER STORY

When More Really Is More

With Lari Pittman's mid-career retrospective opening at LACMA, a Times art critic talks with the painter about his multifaceted work and multicultural life.

June 16, 1996|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

This spring, Lari Pittman, the 44-year-old artist whose brash and inimitable paintings are about to be chronicled in a mid-career survey exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, underwent extensive abdominal surgery to repair lingering damage from a near-fatal shooting 11 years ago. The operation was successful. Coming just before his museum retrospective, however, Pittman's surgery has coincidentally created an unexpected echo of the awful event.

On July 2, 1985, an early morning intruder to the artist's Silver Lake home pumped two bullets into his stomach, shredding intestines and other viscera in an explosion of sudden violence. Pittman nearly bled to death.

Pittman's paintings changed dramatically after that. The LACMA survey, which begins previews on Wednesday and opens to the public next Sunday, starts with paintings made in 1982. But the show will demonstrate that in 1985, a new, progressively more rigorous pictorial organization developed in the artist's work.

That invigorating direction has continued through an extraordinary series of pictures painted over the last 10 years. Is the shooting responsible for the momentous change?

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 23, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Lari Pittman--In some editions last Sunday, a sentence in the profile of painter Lari Pittman was garbled. It should have read: "It was obvious then that Pittman's art had made a decisive leap--even without knowing of the gruesome 1985 encounter that nearly ended his artistic career, before it had even gotten started."

"There are basically two ways to go," Pittman says now of the metamorphosis that occurred in his work in the aftermath of the attack. "It either completely ruins your life, creating a spiral of self-destruction, or it's a propellant. My psychological makeup is such that I took this stunning incident of physical violence and somehow, with Roy's help, was able to turn a liability into an asset. That manifested itself in my work."

"Roy" is Roy Dowell, also a highly regarded artist, whom Pittman met in 1974 while both were students at the California Institute of the Arts; they have been a couple ever since. Following a painful recovery period, Pittman balked at getting back to painting. It was Dowell who cajoled, nagged and nudged him back into the studio.

The echo of the gunfire can occasionally be seen in Pittman's images. For example, his first mural-size painting, "An American Place" (1986-87), contains a big, seemingly abstract pink shape adjacent to a domestic picket fence, grimly painted black. The pink shape is actually a stylized silhouette of an automatic weapon.

But "An American Place" is not a veiled or hidden narrative, meant to be decoded for its autobiographical revelations. It's overrun with popular images of growth and decay, including autumn leaves, spring buds, seedpods, eggs and phalluses, interwoven with a syncopated variety of decorative motifs; all are comprehensible without knowing about the artist's life. The painting's layered complexity makes room to accommodate an experience of multiple, even contradictory impulses--violence, joy, radical upheaval, rebirth, sensuality, threat, ugliness, harmony, loss.

"The shooting is not the reason my work went into high gear," the artist explains, in his typically introspective way. "Meaning for me is created contextually, and there is no intrinsic or essential meaning to anything. The random act of physical violence heightened that [belief]."

In a convoluted period in which the biographical diversity of artists' lives is often proposed as the central feature of art's significance, Pittman's work is an illuminating beacon. Art about ethnicity or race, about class, about gender or sexuality--in short, art about the shifting phantom of human identity--has been advanced by many as the crucial work for our time.

Pittman is prominent among a number of gifted artists who, in the 1980s, made a specifically gay male sensibility a conspicuous artistic ingredient. Far from the first gay men to be artists in the modern era, Nayland Blake, Ross Bleckner, Robert Gober, Jim Isermann, the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres and others took a more open path than most predecessors. Having come to maturity in decades following the Stonewall rebellion, their generational refusal to sublimate their sexuality or relegate gay interests to a subsidiary role was new.

For Pittman, however, one small problem disrupts the commonly held view of such work. "Art is not 'about' anything," the artist says flatly.

Then he sighs, as if he's as weary of the current, widely held assumption that his work is "about being gay" as he was of suppositions that his pictorial references to mortality were "about being shot." Having been to the brink, Pittman knows better than most that paintings get trivialized when looked at as scrapbook illustrations of merely personal events.

"Art is not an illustration of a text," he says.

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