Los Angeles

Lari Pittman

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Lari Pittman’s paintings have always exercised a provocative dialectic between the apparent frivolity of decoration and its undercurrents of eroticism and decay. Until recently, Pittman refrained from any clear painterly synthesis, preferring to stress the helter-skelter of cultural heterogeneity through collage and assemblage. A baroque sensuality and the inevitability of death vied with ’50s coffee shop kitsch to create works of enigmatic optimism, their dark underbelly counterbalanced by a sanguine sense of endurance.

Pittman has sustained this dialectic in his new work, pitting the liberating force of the subconscious against a reified Modernism. Yet his biomorphic motifs, with their evocations of Jean Arp and John Altoon, have been more firmly integrated into a conceptual statement about painting itself. Gone are the collaged elements, the nostalgic “quotes” of frames within frames. Pittman now seems to be making a critique of the clichés of Post-Modernism, as if to say, “Enough of declassification and debunking. We’ve already returned painting to zero, so let’s start fresh and rebuild upon this purer foundation”

Pittman’s metaphor for this reconstruction of painting is the idealism and determination of the Puritan settlers of 1620 and the tenets of the American Revolution. Works such as Plymouth Rock, Thanksgiving, and The Veneer of Order, all 1985, are fraught with the ideology of freedom gained through rebellion, the very stuff of survival and durability. Yet Pittman is cognizant of the dangers inherent in such a philosophy His revisionist American Revolution stresses patriotism, not nationalism, and sentiment, not sentimentality; it has nothing to do with prevailing Reagan/Rambo jingoism.

In Plymouth Rock, for example, Pittman breathes new life into a patriotic cliche by paralleling the ambiguities of historical and painterly signification. The composition is anchored by two large gourdlike landscapes, a yin-yang, psychosexual combination that resembles an interlocked 69. The topographies conjure up watery utopian cities basking in an aura of prosperity and industrial growth; on closer inspection, however, each metropolis seems ominously decayed, a cosmetic, postapocalyptic vestige. Significantly, one of the “gourds” is plump to the point of bursting, as if the bottom were falling out of our self-satisfied, overdeveloped society Pittman reinforces this double edge by surrounding the central images with cobwebby filaments and mannered abstractions, much like a subtle malaise gnawing at the fabric of society/Modemism and causing it to reevaluate self-evident truths. The spidery 1620 superimposed on this decorative melange evokes both historical roots and the living corpse that is sentimentalized nostalgia.

The necessity of death to facilitate rebirth seemed to be the motif of the whole exhibition, hinting that Pittman has tested life’s safety net and chosen to live. A series of black gourds bearing the legends “Faith” “Hope” “Charity’ ”Forgiveness“ ”Kindness,“ and ”Compassion" acted as a sort of memento mori, a souvenir from the dark side, where life and art are integrated as an assertion of faith and optimism. Pittman, through decoration and unabashedly surreal imagery, has managed to commemorate life in the death of painting, and vitality in the ineluctability of death.

Colin Gardner