TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 1992

LARI PITTMAN: THE AUGUST VIGILANTE

Dennis Cooper: When Lari Pittman was shot in the stomach during a robbery at his home, in 1985, he was best known for peculiar decorative paintings in which he mixed incongruous narrative elements with designs as bland and fruity as those in tasteless wallpaper. He seemed an oddball abstract artist, a little over his head technically: when pieces worked, they emitted a minor nagging playfulness in which “serious” issues—death, sex, spirituality—would’ve seemed to have had as much luck accruing as hamburger to Teflon. Lying in a hospital, drugged almost senseless, his internal organs shredded, Pittman saw the bedposts, walls, etc., rock and veer in sinister fashion. Months later, when he returned to his studio, the dandy with an eye for pretty banalities had been joined—infected, let’s say—by more than a wee bit of Edvard Munchian horror and distaste for the bland and bourgeois.

Yancy C.: I’ve never been shot, but I’ve had my right arm broken about five times and on each occasion I was given morphine intravenously to ease the pain of my mangled nerves. (Just bear with me for a moment—the connections will come . . . later.) The last three fractures occurred when I was 15. Since they happened consecutively (three breaks within five months), I was exposed to opiates, and consequently naturally withdrawn from them, at a time when my testosterone and other pubescent chemicals were in a state of . . . let’s say a “too-late-chaste” frenzy. In other words, I was grabbing for any kind of orgasmic or endorphin high I could fill my sneaky little glands with. At the same time, I had also discovered the Velvet Underground and writers like William S. Burroughs. Sort of base to think about now—yeah, every awl-turn-uh-tive key-ed (punk) digs those dudes. Mmmmmm hmmmmm. Yeah, but. . . .

Two weeks ago, after four years of semisubconscious searching and almost four months of practice, I began my withdrawal from a one-gram-a-day, ass-kicking, budget-busting heroin habit. I was never without—always on the nod. I’d been constitutionally equipped for heroin. My midbrain receptors had been like a nice antique jigsaw puzzle missing the center pieces. Once the void was filled, I’d felt complete for the first time in my life.

After the first few days of usage, however, it seemed that every waking morning became like Christmas in Dr. Seuss land—the Grinch stealing my good time, I’d have to go out and buy it back.

I talked to Lari about a month ago in his studio before my spontaneous decision to leave for Atlanta (my hometown) and kick the junk habit. Dennis and I shuffled innocuously enough up to the studio door. After greeting a very well-kempt Lari, adorned in Eisenhower-era glasses and your usual L.A.-art-scene duds, I began taking inventory on the place and on the scent of my stale clothes. Take a whiff—guess it could have been worse. Peek around—anachronistic baroque images of Bedknobs and Broomsticks silhouettes lurking on placid Noxzemabased walls. Bottles of Evian, and empty cups of freshly squeezed beta-carotene-spangled juicesplaced neatly in the odorless wastecan—THANK GOD I’VE GOT ON LONG SLEEVES, THIS GUY’S REEKING OF AN ALL-NATURAL FIX.

Listen! You think I’m crazy about the warehouse?. . . You think I’m in love with the Continental Shoemakers? You think I want to spend fifty-five years down there in that—celotex interior! with—fluorescent—tubes! Look! I’d rather somebody picked up a crowbar and battered out my brains—than go back mornings! I go!
—Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie, 1944

Glance at my watch. Gonna have to meet my man soon. That morning shot’s creeping into the picture, stirring the gastric juices.

Hey! Fuck you. Help me, I’m dead. If I keep walking around flippin’ these ashes out the window I won’t go on the nod. We have a seat. “Want some juice? There’s a great place down the street.” “Naw my stomach’s kind of. . . . ” Then the dialogue begins: post-Modern esthetics and art-school deconstructionism. He’s had to defend this stuff before.

Dennis interrupts. My contracted eyes perk up a little; I was beginning to think I was being read to from one of those overANALyzed Artforum articles.

Dennis: Yancy, this article’s going to Artforum.

Yancy: Oh?—Pardon the preconception. Oh, hmmm. Anyway, back to what you brought up that day, Dennis. That story—the shooting, the hospital—intrigued me at the time. It brought the work into focus. Moreover, the scenes have haunted my tired retinae through the sleepless nights of junk sickness. A week transpires a septennium. Piecemeal hallucinations pertaining to De Quincey’s Malay visitor returning, lips and fingernails blue from the north winds of the Isle de Hyperboreans, and Mexican cock-a-roaches doing la cucaracha around some southerly sombrero, lying complacent on a bed, tucked between .45-caliber cartridges and the 35-mm. frames of a Gus Van Sant picture. JESUS. I ALMOST PUT A BUG IN MY ARM! Flashbacks to an Easter spent in the hospital as a child, coughing, pneumonia, hallucinating the structure of a hotel courtyard and gazing over the edge of my bed—the floors geometrically tunnel-visioning into the scope of a giant lizard, the croclike mouth devouring bodies as they are hurled from various heights of the silo—and in falling I catch a diminuendo of cries.

Shot, eh? I rose from my seat and began to take a second gander at Pittman’s works hanging around me.

Before my return to Los Angeles, I had sort of prematurely taken a leave of absence from one of Atlanta’s “finest” drug-rehab/mental-health institutes. With my brain on Tranxene, I kept yelling at the “nurses,” “Look, I gotta have some paper and a pen. I’ve got work to do.”

“Sir you’re still detoxing.”

“Well stop giving me the fucking medication. I was doing ten times better before I was put in this joint.”

And that was exactly what Lari had said:

"STOP GIVING ME THE GODDAMN MORPHINE. I WANT THE BEDPOSTS BACK ON THE GROUND. THE HARLEQUINS BACK TO THEIR DRESSING ROOMS. THE BEES BACK IN THEIR HIVES. AND MY INTESTINES . . . BACK IN MY STOMACH!

“MAKEUP! SOMEBODY GET ME SOME POWDER OVER HERE!”

Maybe he enjoyed the drug too much. I certainly did, with my arm dangling by the waistside. I’ll probably never retire from romancing the first tastes of “the flowers of evil.” And if there’s any truth to the notion of, well, human nature, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more bedposts and bees emerging from the brush of one Lari Pittman. By the way—why don’t you spell your name “L-A-R-R-Y,” like normal folks? Who cares. Keep it up man. The shit’s intense.

Dennis: I’d rather look at Yancy’s face than at any artwork I can name . . . not just because he’s my best friend. In Death in Venice, Mann’s writer character, Aschenbach, abandons his art, all art, when he lays eyes on the delicate, sickly, boy-character Tadzio and decides that the sublime is arrived at just like that . . . spontaneously and without reason, not through a labored if informed transcription of some mental process. So, standing there in Lari Pittman’s overheated studio and watching my uncomfortable, if polite, junk-sick friend study the paintings, I was fascinated by the exact nature of his inaccessible thoughts. I could see Pittman’s boxy compositions of hell-bent puppets and cartoon insects, etc., reflected in Yancy’s blue-green eyes, distorting those familiar orbs into hideously cutesy planets; I knew that under the circumstances he was experiencing ambivalence at the very least. Over my left shoulder the petite artist rattled off an interpretation of his own work that was heavy on rather imagination-numbing Cal-Artian rhetoric-speak. Alternately, though,he spoke almost as an aside of the pain he was continuing to suffer as a result of being shot, now more than a decade ago. And in this light the paintings began to mean something beyond and outside their terrifically varied, accomplished, and seductive gothic formalities.

In the art world of today, the reading that came out of this conversation is probably valueless—an overly personalized look-see that prioritizes the artist and, more especially, the viewer, while making something of a doormat of their supposedly priceless meeting ground, the art itself. But what makes Pittman’s work significant within a field so given to ass-covering cleverness is exactly his inability to put distance between himself and his torment, however he may have labored to disguise it with ambiguous symbols, however sincerely he may ask for an interpretation long on identity politics (something, he said, about being gay and reclaiming sexually explicit content from straight artists like Charles Ray Mike Kelley Matthew Barney et al., as I recall), however much he may counter the slightly anguished look in his eyes with an expensive wardrobe and trendily owlish glasses. In my head, and in Yancy’s it seems, Pittman’s predilection for kitsch—a taste we have less than no sympathy for—dissolves like the pretty, inconsequential housing .of a powerful drug. If truth be told, our interest in the reification of our own obsessions takes precedence over what we studied in Theory 1.

And if, after the shooting, the artist got the same treatment that, say, Yancy did in his drug-rehab hospital, he’s still free to escape our clutches, to refuse our insistence on a nonintellectualized meaning within his art-world-friendly facade, though we are not power-mad fascists, I assure him and you. Psychic pain and drugs (in my case speed, coke, and LSD particularly) have left us both rather helplessly if happily aflail in the kind of self-involvement that leaves our faces, brains, and interpretive abilities mysterious and without deconstructable designs. Via our “critique,” our secretiveness (Yancy is my cowriter’s pseudonym, for one thing), we offer Pittman a . . . what? A little look at the scars that protrude so garishly (as far as we’re concerned) from his bad, prissy self.

Yancy: Physical pain is something the average Joe just can’t deal with. Probably almost as much effort is put into pacifying the nerves, the stomach, and the dehydrated membranes of a hungover brain with ibuprofen, Pepto-Bismol, and Mr. Bush’s Halcion as into producing passive forms of entertainment such as TV, phone sex, Nintendo, etc. Don’t even have to be a criminal—caffeine in the morning, alcohol at night, little old ladies discreetly stuffing prescriptions for Valium and Dilaudid into vaginal patent-leather purses and smiling as their arthritic bones carry them out the pharmacy door to the seat of some old American roadster and finally into the solace of an Ease-O-Matic chair.

I’ve said that maybe Lari liked the sensation too much. Maybe Lari’s not your average Joe. It must have taken some incredible insight to give up a narcotic after a serious bullet wound. Endorphins are undoubtedly more precious than gold; once they’re gone, it takes at least six to nine months to get them back to a normal level. The midbrain is small in mass, but has veto power over any decision that the cognitive or creative areas may wish to initiate.

“Nope. Can’t paint right now. Have to go home and feed the cockroaches.”

Hey! Fuck you. Help me, I’m dead.

See that boy. I loved him so. He got an OD catastrophe. He got a big OD. . . . See that girl
—Spacemen 3, 1991

A title Lari has given to his work, “A Decorated Chronology of Insistence & Resignation,” can be applied to a variety of interpretive arenas: 1. The AIDS epidemic and the search for a cure. 2. Lari lying in a gutter . . . bullet in chest . . . cars driving by . . . not wanting to get involved . . . “Honey don’t stop, that man was probably a drug dealer!” 3. (My take.) “Hey I’m tired of methadone. It’s killing me. Where’s the P.O.P. you guys been working on?” “Fuck you. Take your medicine.” “I’m hurting. Give me the antidote.” Too late he’s dead.

Well, the ambiguity is not important—I mean Kafka never actually said that Gregor Samsa had turned into a cockroach. He could have been a scarab, a dung beetle, or a bedbug depending on which metaphor accurately fit the scene. It all applies to the same need—and that is for compassion: feeling something closer than the microwaves of a television screen.

Dennis: When Pittman was in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he rejected morphine after the first day or two because it made the room distort, spin, etc., unpleasantly it seems. The hallucinations, while interesting, weren’t precise: the drug’s influence far outweighed his own fancy input. So he chose pain for a while, and backpedaled his imagination, letting it fend for itself under that storm. Battered, but still impeccable and dignified, his subsequent art increasingly references his near death. Only the decorations have changed, being more esthetically suited to his recently distressed psyche—bleeding puppets, bombs, venomous insects, silhouettes of harlequinesque revelers, abstract shapes that become the compositions.’ internal organs. They are also more specifically confrontational, questioning both the holiness expected of “great” painting and the acuteness of contemporary art-lovers’ vastly lowered expectations.

It’s possible—and maybe we’ve inferred it?—to look at Pittman’s recent output and extract the “ineffable,” a notion that necessarily involves an idiosyncratic reading, seeing as how death, drugs, insanity, and pain extend pretty much the same hand from . . . wherever, the beyond. And it doesn’t take a drugged or distracted mind to forget the lessons of theory and see in these works a kind of multiplicitous entranceway to a romantic if slightly discomfiting netherworldcum-diorama in which Pittman would like to relocate himself—as a distant, carefully placed, worry-free cutout, dressed to the nines, gun in manicured hand, hand concealed under harlequin robes, nose in air, swaggering (albeit with a slight mince) into “the sunset.”

Dennis Cooper is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. His next novel is to be called Try. Yancy C. is a writer who lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on a novel.