I met Pittman in 1987, when I interviewed him for the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Since then, we've become good friends. Conducting an interview today is thus a somewhat odd experience, since the formality collides with the casual chat we're used to. Pittman is unusually articulate, though, and the occasion of the LACMA show seemed opportune for a wide-ranging look back. You don't often get an excuse to sit down with a friend and ask him to recount, step by step, the particularities of his life.
The occasion for our first interview was a solo show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, where "An American Place" was having its debut (it's now in the collection of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art). Fourteen months earlier, I had been knocked out by a group of his paintings that featured strange, biomorphic forms decorated with ghostly images describing aqueous landscapes, at once visionary and decayed. 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.
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."
Compared to a lot of current art, much about his new pictures seemed cheerfully wrong. Still unabashedly decorative, they exerted an unfashionable commitment to formal rigor. Gone were the wallpaper sheets and knickknack shelves common in earlier work; these were content to be old-fashioned paintings. Titles played up frankly sentimental ideals, long-since corrupted, of American freedom and democracy: "Plymouth Rock," "Thanksgiving," "The New Republic."
Who could say which of these features ran more against the grain? Art-wise, all were supposed to be dead issues.
Well, death does have a way of sharpening life's rhythms. I wrote at the time that Pittman's paintings functioned like haunting memento mori--honoring mortality in an unembarrassed way, while generating unexpected varieties of visual experience. A wide spectrum of artistically illogical, previously unacceptable forms suddenly became possible to enjoy.
Pittman's art is infused with a distinctive flavor. Traveling once in Mexico, he described to me his abiding interest in that country as a heartfelt attraction to its bittersweet culture.
Bittersweet. The word rejoices in an inherent contradiction, a polymorphousness at once sharp, acrid and sorrowful, yet fused with sugary and agreeable tastes. Pleasure made pungent with overtones of sadness.
Formally, Pittman builds that aura of coexistent contradictions from the influential precedent of German painter Sigmar Polke. His dense, transparent layers of unrelated images create a raucous visual field, in which seemingly incompatible pictorial incidents simultaneously inhabit a single moment in time and space.
Shallow patterns spread like kudzu across the surface of the mahogany panels on which he paints, leaving little breathing room. Occasionally the surface is built up thickly, with inelegant forms rendered in goopy oil paint or densely clotted glue and glitter.
Pittman's noisy Pop imagery delights in kitschy cliches, deadened by overuse. The long list includes cheesy urban landscapes, Victorian silhouettes of men and women, Baroque curtains with tassled swags, hooting owls, crystalline snowflakes, bejeweled tiaras, computer terminals, dancing puppets and hermaphrodites, brightly colored Mastercard and Visa logos and piously praying hands.
Degradation is a principal motif in images like these. Take the praying hands, whose highly refined source in Albrecht Durer's famous 1508 drawing has long since been degraded by endless modern reproduction as greeting cards, bookends and desktop knickknacks.
In order to flourish and prosper, our culture's roaring engine of consumption requires continuous degradation. For how can the fires of perpetual desire, which mass consumption demands, be continually stoked? Pitiless disappointment is its fuel.
Faced with this modern dilemma for humane values and moral character, Pittman's paintings refreshingly do without typical responses of cynicism and irony. Like the celebrated work of his friend Mike Kelley--albeit with a very different tone--Pittman's art performs a difficult salvage operation. The paintings go way out on a limb, in a breathtaking effort to counter such common corruptions.
Sometimes the bough breaks. But that's an occupational hazard for an artist intent on painting sincere pictures of an open-hearted world, which he does not see flourishing around him. Full-bodied experience is rescued from the relentless degradations of modern life.
His is not a mere art of social criticism, though, which has been so dully fashionable in academic circles in recent years. "Critique in that sense for me is a bore," the artist says of theory-driven work that regards with suspicion the pleasurable uselessness of art. "To this day, making art remains absolutely about pleasure. A polemic alone cannot pull a painting through."