Los Angeles

Lari Pittman

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Two themes dominated this mid-career survey of Lari Pittman’s painting: one was sexual politics, the other, more surprisingly, was Pittman’s Americanism. Opening shortly before the July 4 weekend, the show felt like a collision between a fireworks display and a gay-pride parade. Along with the ample breasts and parted butt cheeks, the gaping sphincters and vaginas, the little fleur-de-lis erections and the teardrops of cum scattered across this 13-years-worth of paintings, there also appeared picket fences, pilgrims in tall buckled hats, praying hands beside parted books, and quotes from the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” calls out a painting from 1985, to which another from 1995 responds, “Go Girl!”

Pittman offers this Queer American Dream earnestly, his apple-pie symbolism, though retaining a hint of menace,adopted nonetheless as an article of faith, or at least as something both “beloved and despised” (to quote from the title of a series of paintings). While not exactly melting-pot paeans, Pittman’s insatiably synthetic, sexy panoramas accommodate myriad “pursuits” crisscrossing at once the body and the body politic. Polymorphous perversity is how Citizen Lari intends to hold the country to its democratic promise.

Primarily it’s the vicissitudes of his own body that Pittman seeks to explicate. What really qualifies his project as true-blue American, in fact, is his equation of the nation’s life with his own. Pittman amplifies the notion of the personal as political into full-blown self-hagiography, projecting onto the macrocosm his microtrials and revelations as a macho Colombian-bred dandy, a victim of violence, a principled, hopeful, fatalistic hedonist, “spiritual and needy” (quoting another of his painting’s titles). Vain as all this may seem, it situates his work smack-dab in a tradition stretching from Emerson and Whitman to the life of Elvis and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The result is not only a hybridization of Emerson’s “representative man” but a persuasive argument that coming out is the first step to national renewal.

Part of the fun of Pittman’s work lies in watching it flirt with so much of the Western canon, especially its recent American inductees. In line with his politics, such esthetic quoting signals reformist participation in tradition rather than ironic detachment from it, despite the prevalence of cool Pop among Pittman’s many infatuations. Stuart Davis gets plenty of attention, but so does Jackson Pollock. Beyond an enthusiasm for sincere, manic outpouring, as well as a perfected ability to synchronize minute detail with whammo, allover gestalt, Pittman also shares Pollock’s “sadistic and scatological sensibility,” at times even his “Gothic-ness, violence, exasperation and stridency” (that’s Clement Greenberg talking). The difference, of course, is that Pittman takes Pollock’s privacy—the entrenchment of his work within the interior of the self and the momentary act of painting—and goes public with it, mapping vortexes with street-sign arrows, translating “pure opticality” into the pop idiom of psychedelic patterning, advertising libidinal release through wandering question marks and exclamation points, bursting radial tracery, swarming flamelike paisleys, and an effusion of what looks like Symbolist clip art.

Even the lack of vertical orientation that Pollock’s floor-bound working method produced gets echoed in Pittman’s series of canvases from 1991 in which the number 69 constantly reappears in mid tumble. At once desublimating and decentering the whole notion of an “ejaculatory” painting, Pittman portrays sex as power-sharing and subjectivity-scrambling, and does so in a visual language so elegantly conventionalized that any one of its motifs would look at home on a greeting card. This is alienated AbEx dressed up for a wild night out, Pollock as seen in Vogue magazine providing backdrops for fashion models. Indeed Pittman actually makes the models part of his painting.

It took him a while to do so, though. One thing this survey revealed was how slowly Pittman incorporated the full human figure into his works: it shows up, albeit wobbling under anatomical overload, around 1992, preceded by a decade of silhouettes, cat’s eyes, petite phallic dingbats, and other free-floating body signage. And yet, curiously enough, the earlier works are sexier. Seduction’s always been a surprise effect of Pittman’s art, a triumph over its otherwise too-deliberate, fussed-over design (the work is anal twice over). Sheer excessiveness is one way he both intoxicates and titillates, giving the viewer a sense of seeing too much yet not everything. Close inspection of An American Place, 1986, for example, uncovers vine-like doodling that occasionally sprouts heart shapes and testicles; but only by stepping way back will you spot the gigantic spread-ass in white dotted outline that circumscribes the canvas’ wall-sized expanse, and that turns the bulging dollop of red pigment in the painting’s center into a swollen orifice.

All Pittman’s work, though, indulges in games of hide-and-seek. What distinguishes the earlier pieces—especially those from 1986–88—is their more-erotic spatial play, their alternation between advance and withdrawal, as harsh color contrasts and Op art devices grab the eyeballs while more languorous clearings of warmer siesta tones yank the viewer in. These more open fields beckon to desiring flesh. But with the introduction of full figures the work grows increasingly narrative, its imagery more didactic, its use of space more economical. The survey climaxes with Pittman’s mural-length Like You, 1995, an even, seemingly infinite unscrolling of information, a technological miracle, the realm of the senses as if accessed via CD-ROM. While the painting would appear to mark Pittman’s mastering of Whitmanesque self-ovation, it’s also a bit of a letdown, a display of cold genius that elicits awe but not swooning.

Lane Relyea is a writer living in Austin, Texas.