Los Angeles

Lari Pittman

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

In Lari Pittman’s Victorian domestic utopias, the most terrifying nightmares and the ripest euphorias take tea together within the cozy parameters of the rectangle. The vocabulary is gaudy and hallucinogenic—an ornamental chaos maxed out with information, in which the artist proposes an anxious unity between things humiliating and pleasurable.

In this new body of work—a virtual masquerade ball—Pittman represents himself as a highly socialized, carnivorous female owl, with large saggy breasts and humongous vaginas. In Transubstantial and Needy, 1991, an oversized owl wearing a bejeweled crown that drips onto its brow stands beside a burning candle. One eye socket features the number 69, the other is empty and turned on its side. Both leak tears. Covering the owl’s hermaphroditic torso (massive female breasts and a superdeluxe cock and balls), is a one-of-a-kind suspender/bib with see-through shoulder straps, little bows, and a hefty bikini attached. Sixes and nines crawl in and out of the suit, and the owl floats above a black circle, enclosing the words “get out!” White droplets of candle wax mark a circle, and a white mouse defecates in a round shadow. And this is less than half of the painting. In Ameliorative and Needy, 1991 (the word “needy” appears in each title), an owl hangs from its feet by a thick, tasseled bellpull, the rope itself adorned with little ribbons and decorative glops. The owl is being baptized—its head partially dipped in a caldron of misty liquid. In Miraculous and Needy, 1991, a candle flame burns an owl with a wreath on its head, holding a sign that reads “hello!” Is the owl being burned alive or simply represented as having hot loins? The paintings are a cross between the ultimate sexual cartoon and a progressive children’s book. Pittman’s thesis is clear: you can’t escape the flesh, try as you might. The perverse owls, Lari Pittman, the audience—we are all in it together, even when the picture provides a pair of scissors to cut our way out.

Pittman is an unusual kind of bad boy, not the brand celebrated in the art world of late. His work is obsessive and sexual, but avoids brick-in-the-face irony, and it has nothing to do with metal music. His universe is hermetic at the same time that it is panic-stricken and information-saturated, executed in the accessible language of commercial graphic illustration. Pittman’s rowdiness is expressed in a profusion of psychodecoration that genuinely figures his state of psychic puzzlement. His art probably comes off as politically incorrect because it’s inward and out of its mind and doesn’t take up the standard campaign. Pittman proposes a gospel for the “Church Without Christ,” where owls stand in for gay men. Pittman’s paintings strike hard; they’re furious, pitiful, rude, and have more to do with a subtler version of the Latin American tradition of retablos and ex-votos—with the urgent requests and thank-yous from people in states of desperation—than with traditional Western picture-making.

Benjamin Weissman