Critics’ Picks

Lari Pittman, Spiritual and Needy, 1991, acrylic and enamel on mahogany panel, 82 x 66".

St. Louis

Lari Pittman

Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
3750 Washington Blvd.
May 24 - August 11

Through a mere twenty-four works of immodest scale, curator Kelly Shindler draws a nuanced, retroactive arc connecting Lari Pittman’s recent painterly tendencies to select pieces (dating, at the earliest, to the mid-1980s) that presage his current approach. Taking its title from Pittman’s 1993 painting Untitled #17 (A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation), this exhibition—the artist’s first museum retrospective in some twenty years—foregrounds Pittman’s use of a marginalized style (decoration) as an analogy for a marginalized identity (queer) and medium (painting in the ’70s). Mid-’90s works, such as the massive, multipanel Like You, 1995, favor carnivalesque fonts, bombastic primaries, and cartoon asses and cocks, while slightly earlier pieces, such as Spiritual and Needy, 1991, employ more tertiary hues and delicately arcane midcentury imagery—but no less uncoy sexual pleas (here, a large scrawled “f-me!” points toward an anus). Pittman’s decorative impulse not only becomes denser as his practice moves toward the present but also ultimately trumps broad-stroke explicitness. In current works such as Untitled #8 (The Dining Room), 2011, or the eight-part Alphabet, 2013, sexuality becomes, in all senses, more internalized—written neither literally nor figuratively on the body but tangled in the fine web of the subconscious mind and the everyday domestic sphere.

Rather than recalling ’80s- and ’90s-era identity politics, this exhibition suggests that Pittman’s depejoratizing of social taboos—specifically those associated with gay identity—comes via the feminist, pattern and design rubric he absorbed at CalArts through Miriam Schapiro. The unapologetic depiction of fuchsia floral motifs and cut glassware, for instance, serves as a sufficient challenge to pervading notions of “serious” taste. Following the show’s chronology, you see Pittman return to his early, subtler palette and penchant for ’50s-era decorative arcana while deepening his mind-bogglingly precise craft through a shift from topical visualizations of sociopolitical subjects to riotous piles of intricately painted ceramics, potted plants, vintage postcards, and other “feminized” ornamental items that populate his actual life. Rather than mining the external world of road signs and headlines, the trajectory of Pittman’s oeuvre seems to be an inward-driven quest to redefine defiance, moving it from the Pynchonesque to the Proustian.