Los Angeles

Lari Pittman

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Lari Pittman’s paintings are unsettling. Like the placards announcing THE END IS NEAR! carried by barefoot, scruffy prophets of doom in cartoons, Pittman’s works seem to be warning signs. In this show, the artist conveyed his visual messages via an avalanche of lively but quickly degenerating ’50s design clichés. Using this borrowed, nostalgia-tinged language, Pittman illustrates the ways in which the cumulative chaos of our age traps and numbs us. These paintings dissect with deadly accuracy the problems of dealing with a culture of excess.

Overflowing with creepy oranges and greens, ungrounded browns, and weird pinks, the paintings contain such a profusion of emblems, motifs, doodads, squiggles, arrows, eyeballs, arabesques, stylized silhouettes, and bits of near-demented calligraphy that even the most voracious viewer could never hope to digest their contents. These works are impenetrable; they’re as complicated and unmanageable as living has become. There’s no place for the viewer to project himself onto them, because they’re too full. Pittman crams his works with swollen pods and vinelike loops that seem to be proliferating right before one’s eyes. In these seething maps of confusion, shapes bulge and send out shoots, all of which are circuitous roads that lead only to more remote regions.

Though these paintings are often exhausting to look at because of their relentless overpopulation, some of the individual elements that make up the total picture can be appealing. Still, Pittman gives us such an overwhelming glut of these jumpy little design items that they begin to look sinister. It’s as though an army of toys is preparing to rise up and slay its maker.

But Pittman’s work is more than a meditation on the burgeoning threats of our time. The paintings wouldn’t be as effective as they are if they didn’t contain some softening, mediating touches. Certain pieces have a very flat, almost steam-rolled surface,which makes them look slightly comic, like illustration pages from some giant, wacky textbook. This quality makes the paintings easier to look at: the absolute flatness laid over the chaos is calming. Several smaller pieces (Untitled #46, Untitled #47, and Untitled #48, all works 1988) contain little painted sketches of what look like foreign cities floating in the morass of surreal pictures and shapes; they seem to imply the faint possibility of escape. Some of the titles of Pittman’s paintings take the form of sentimental adages that might have been uttered sincerely once upon a time, but now sound ironic—At an old age, how sweet to die in the arms of one’s love, and The scent of a flower, for a moment, makes eternity bearable. Trying to reconcile these frenzied paintings with their sighing, almost saccharine titles makes you feel torn, as though you’re at the crux of a dilemma. Something frightening is running its course, and Pittman is showing us what it looks like.

Amy Gerstler