PRINT December 1992

Sweet Thing

IN CONTRAST TO L.A. PEERS Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, who make postadolescent sexual aggression the medium for their rough-and-tumble transgressions of taste, Lari Pittman chooses the sissy route—he prettifies everything he touches. Indeed, while the silhouettes, candle drippings, and prunelike wrinkles that overpopulate his canvases may teeter on the edge of mystic obscurantism, the loving attention he takes with their execution recalls the behavior of the perfectly contented child who creates painstakingly realized inventions out of the serene confidence that his efforts will be greeted with praise.

Yet while Pittman’s paintings embody a childlike wonderment in the living, sensate world, they are also infused with a dread that comes with knowing that everything alive will end up as rotting tissue. The transition from works like An American Place, 1986—well-mannered, introspective-but-upbeat abstractions, with a flair for the decorative—to the hallucinogenic tangle of compulsive confession in his newest paintings suggests that Pittman’s work is riding a larger cultural wave. Between the ’80s and the ’90s, the American people have been transformed from a gaggle of deluded self-boosters into a nation of citizens hunching their shoulders protectively against whatever calamity will befall them next. Earlier this year, a controversial, watershed exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, “Helier Skelter,” reflected this general pessimism. Bringing together L.A. artists of different stripes under the thematic umbrella of malaise and anomie, the show tracked a pathological world-weariness, suggesting that today’s disenchanted younger generation prefers dwelling on the mistakes of the past to trying to change the world. (For a gay man in his 40s, the specter of AIDS certainly contributes to this general mood.)

At the same time, an optimism informs all of Pittman’s paintings (or so he insists). It makes itself felt through the possibility of high-intensity sensorial engagement—the projection of what the artist calls “a simultaneous world,” in which everything hap-pens at the same time, and overlaps occur in the most unexpected places and combinations. The raw and the sinister may be inescapable in Pittman’s work, but they are always overshadowed by the kaleidoscopic package in which they are presented.

Typically composed of a shallow pictorial space within which the artist has ingeniously arranged figures and forms that either exaggerate their own physicality or else deny it by being flattened into silhouettes, Pittman’s paintings are characterized by a hierarchy of size in which images overlap but rarely if ever intersect. A morality play is acted out on their compressed, out-of-proportion stages: the individual floats freely through the world, exposed and susceptible, bombarded by sweetness, danger, ecstasy, and pain. It waves its arms gamely, trying to attract the attention of some sympathetic passerby. It claims to be doing its best, and is constantly finding portents of the future in its own excrement. It ducks windmills, spills blood, and does a little dance now and then. One day it winds up on the junk heap, a gray shell with no life left inside. This sequence is a literal description of the recent quadriptych A Decorated Chronology of Insistence & Resignation, 1992, but could just as easily apply to earlier works like Transformational and Needy, 1990, in which one stage of the self’s evolution—the soul being cast out of the dying body—is depicted without the least reliance on metaphor.

In terms of technique, Pittman has gradually moved away from the appearance of the handmade. He now relies on highly synthetic-looking colors, textures, and shapes, which seem to be rooted equally in Victoriana and in computer page-layout programs. Taking his place alongside a surprising number of painters, from Andy Warhol to Sue Williams, Pittman attributes this shift in handling and imagery partly to having been the victim of violence—he was shot and seriously injured in a robbery in 1985. Such experiences, he remarks, force those who undergo them to reconstruct their world view from scratch. They also impose a no-risk guarantee on the future: you realize your everyday worries don’t amount to much. Pittman’s art shows how deeply engrossed he is by the freedom he feels. “I don’t mind the work being embarrassing or laughable,” he says; “There’s a certain perversity to . . . being ridiculed.”1

Should this be interpreted as a case of a gay artist defending himself against internalized homophobia, or does Pittman’s work suggest a more complex form of artistic empowerment? In an interview with me earlier this year, the artist discussed the polarization of the California Institute of the Arts when he was studying there, in the late ’70s—how the then-“official” conceptualism of Michael Asher and John Baldessari stood opposed to the Pattern and Decoration art that was emerging at the time. “Pattern and Decoration,” Pittman said, “was primarily linked to early feminist discourse and located in the feminine gender. [In embracing Pattern and Decoration] I actually embraced a discussion of my opposite gender as I was coming up as a young artist.”2 Reliance on labor-intensive techniques rooted in the craft tradition, a central use of decorative motifs as a codified subject matter, and an employment of materials and colors that had a clearly sentimental character—these were the strategies used by the Pattern and Decoration artists during the volatile late ’70s to differentiate between their work and the macho bravura of most mainstream art movements. In advancing this position, Pittman was making an identification in terms not just of gender but of the marginalization such an allegiance would invite; he was keeping himself slightly “outside the loop”—the loop constituted, that is, from the frequently sexist and xenophobic discourse of many of the ambitious young artists around him.

The exhaustive attention that Pittman pays to surface embellishment, then, can be read as an explicitly gay strategy, taken directly from his identification with feminism. (This was not in fact an isolated gesture among the young gay intellectuals of the time.) Although Pittman does not go the extra step of identifying the traditional repertoires of painting technique with heterosexist culture, he does connect his own desire for a reinvention of painting to his disagreement with Eurocentric values, and specifically with the way a conservative art world relentlessly hierarchizes art according to precepts of “high” and “low.”

For Pittman, a vital avenue for art today is the possibility of an artwork that has an insistently real presence yet that makes the artificiality of its own construction aggressively visible. Among his devices for heightening this sense of artifice is the inclusion in the painting of nonrepresentational signs—language, letters, and numbers, which anchor the canvases, no matter how confusing their multilayered narratives become. Pittman deploys his vocabulary of typographical script to transmit oversimplified messages signifying much more than they let on. The numerals “69” (a sexual pun), for example, are found in virtually all of his 1990–91 works; more equivocal are “HEY” and “Sincerely, Lari,” and other logos are quite unambiguous—“get out!,” “F.Y.,” “S.O.S.,” and, his current favorite, “R.I.P.” Like the silhouette figures and rats that show up in many of his paintings, his looming storybook towers and dripping candles, these coded pictographs ignite under the pressure of a compressed dialectic, acting as way stations between an idealized, happy world and one in which pain, suffering, and death are never far away.

Pittman’s mother is Colombian, which has helped him stand a little outside America’s Puritan heritage. “Life, sex, death, and love,” he feels, have been polarized in the U.S.; they actually “sit very comfortably next to each another. They’re not in opposition.”3 Discussing AIDS, Pittman argues that one positive outcome of the epidemic has been a reworking of concepts of mortality, so that for the sectors of the population most affected, death becomes “a very natural filter . . . through which you view and appreciate life.”4 This viewpoint is hardly escapist. In fact it is the exact opposite: a recognition that contemporary American culture does not prepare us to deal with death, and that we may have to venture outside that culture’s protection if we are to come even partly to terms with our own demise before it actually happens. Pittman knows well how difficult that process can be. He himself has trouble with the seasonal cycles: “I have a hard time planting perennials. . . . I’m fascinated with the pulse of birth and decay, birth and decay. But at the same time it’s horrifying.”5

If there is a motif that ties together virtually all of Pittman’s paintings, it would have to be the permeability of the human organism. Trapped in its bodily husk, its consciousness straining to link up with others of its kind, the self is defined in Pittman’s work as unceasingly craving sustenance from the ebb and flow of life around it. Life, “beloved and despised, continues regardless,” to borrow the title of one of the artist’s series. Pittman is the kind of optimist only a fatalist could love. When asked why his work is so incessantly upbeat, he replies: "Again, I don’t think we have much choice, do we?’

Dan Cameron is a free-lance curator and writer who lives in New York. He contributes frequently to Artforum.


1. Lari Pittman, quoted in David Pagel, “Lari Pittman,” Bomb no. 34, Winter 1991, p. 51.

2. Pittman, quoted in R..1. Merrill, “A Conversation with Lari Pittman,” Artweek, 19 March 1992, p. 10.

3. Pittman, quoted in Pagel, p. 49.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 53.

6. Ibid., p. 49.