Los Angeles

Lari Pittman

Rosamund Felsen Gallery and Newport Harbor Art Museum

Lari Pittman’s paintings are a deliberate frontal attack on the overbearing sensibility that produced the spiky, pastel, trapezoidal forms so prevalent in postwar American design. He presents moiré-patterned fields of printed papers, lion-headed swags of drapery in high relief, and dime-store chinoiseries—a cornucopia of debased and all-but-forgotten forms still able to haunt, dismay, and amuse. It is too early to tell whether the attack is an assault or an embrace.

Pittman’s is the boundless imagery of in-stock wallpaper murals, underwater scenes, and wistful evocations of the Italian Riviera. This intentionally murky territory sometimes opens wider to reveal a serene, limitless field reminiscent of the imagery of Joan Miró. Underlying Pittman’s sophistication and bravado, his deliberate choice of the most banal, limp, and formless of forms, lies an esthetic strong enough to give his work structure and purpose.

Pittman employs the outmoded moderne as an expressive means and not as an end in itself. These emblematic forms—the plaster cupids, lions’ heads, Chinese lanterns, and others—are virtually empty signifiers put to the service of a new syntax. In their weakness as forms and in Pittman’s firm refusal to provide any geometric armature for them, these images gain a peculiar strength of character. Oddly appropriate titles such as From Venom to Serum and Denatured reveal the artist’s awareness of his program and purpose. Pittman’s art does not depend upon style but uses it with a rare and chilling audacity.

Susan C. Larsen