Lari Pittman's exhibition "Once a Noun, Now a Verb" is without a doubt one of the best shows of the year.
Because January hasn't yet passed, that's not much of a claim, but come December, I'm sure it will still be true. For this dazzling display of five paintings at Regen Projects stands head and shoulders above just about everything else out there, in Los Angeles, New York and anywhere else contemporary art is shown.
Pittman's dizzying pictures of gymnasts hurtling and twirling through complicated spaces jampacked with battleships, toilets, roses, lightbulbs and pagodas rank among the most sophisticated--and vulgar--he has made. Representing a wildly acrobatic leap above his extraordinary mid-career survey at the L.A. County Museum of Art not two years ago, this electrifying body of work takes your breath away--and gives it back to you, pumped up with verve and vigor.
Pittman's scintillating paintings require active viewer participation. For one thing, it's impossible to see the biggest one, which measures 8 by 21 feet, all at once. You have to step up to this tautly composed and consummately crafted easel painting--which just happens to be the size of a mural--in the same way that a baseball player steps up to the plate.
Focusing on specific details, you find yourself blocking out the surrounding cacophony. As you concentrate on one fastidiously articulated component at a time, you realize that the painting causes you to treat the rest of its energized surface no differently than the gallery's walls, the viewers around you and all of the visual glut that makes up the contemporary urban environment. For the moment, you ignore all equally.
When this happens, you realize that, unlike most paintings, Pittman's provide their own backdrops and make their own contexts. This point is vividly demonstrated by three small paintings and one medium-size drawing, all in white frames, that hang on the surface of the large painting. You scrutinize these jewel-like works in the same way you look at any part of the big picture, with heightened focus at once exhausting, exhilarating and exclusive.
Even at the show's crowded opening, it wasn't difficult to take in any of Pittman's paintings. Because they require intense, part-by-part viewing, you could look at them over shoulders and between heads. They would hold up on a subway during rush hour.
No single story emerges from Pittman's paintings. Amid their spider webs, satellite dishes, spice racks and submarines, you are free to follow your own path. Your eyeballs ride these dynamic works like out-of-control roller coasters, and your mind finds new connections and fresh rhythms, freely mixing and matching metaphors across their garish yet generous surfaces.
* Regen Projects, 629 N. Almont Drive, (310) 276-5424, through Feb. 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.