Los Angeles

Lari Pittman

Lari Pittman’s epic paintings have always been like big Broadway numbers—but in his latest show, the only big number was seventeen. That’s how many works he fitted into a gallery space he used to fill with just one. All measuring less than three by four feet, these paintings on heavy paper feel like studies, though they possess all the precision and finish of Pittman’s large panels and bear all his trademarks: radical scale shifts, mixed and matched styles, jumbled, discontinuous spaces, a multihued but rarely blended palette, a grab bag of techniques and media (acrylic, alkyd, spray enamel, gesso), and appropriated imagery and ornament, the more offbeat the better.

Like his earlier bodies of work, which held to a program of titles, aesthetic codes, and signifiers that defined each series and linked it to those previous and yet to come, these paintings (all 2001) adhere to a system of recurring elements and motifs. The titles are Mad Lib formulaic: Optimal setting for atmospheric conditions that can induce ___ in the male (the blank is filled in with words describing a variety of conditions, such as melancholia, euphoria, rapture, and so on). The compositions are packed with percolating fluids, tubes and pipes, beakers and jars, insects and other nature specimens, and the faces of youngish men, seemingly borrowed from slightly outdated clip art. But the programmatic aspects that have always made Pittman’s paintings so dearly his own seem to be slipping a bit in these new works, which is why they feel more like studies. The quasi-laboratory imagery in these pieces seems to reflect a more experimental spirit in Pittman’s studio practice, and the unexpectedly reductive quality invites the viewer to get a little more intrigued. The males in these works become less generic and more specific, as types if not as individuals.

In Optimal setting for atmospheric conditions that can induce delirium in the male, a pretty boy only has eyes for himself in his hand mirror; in delusion, a young buck in a Huck Finn–ish straw hat stares right past the viewer toward an unknown horizon; and in affectation, a hunk poses, waiting to be noticed as he chugalugs from what looks like a cross between a bong, a still, and one of those novelty hats that holds your drink for you. That suggestion of consumption, which—along with hints of communication, connection, and invitation—runs through much of the work, turns up again in inversion, where a reclining youth tunes out and sucks water through a tube from a giant bottle; and in hysteria, a bow tie-clad, bearded fellow, seemingly of a more genteel place and time yet rendered somewhat Mansonesque by the insect insignia on his forehead, raises his glass to the viewer. Meanwhile, the two young lads in melodrama take time out to light cigarettes beneath the hovering emblems of a staple gun and staple remover, and the dreamy, windswept chap in hallucination gazes into his viewer's eyes, backdropped by a pair of two-by-fours, each embedded with a screw. (Gotta love those studs.) Though they may lack the involved narratives of Pittman’s larger paintings, these works, which wear their weirdness like a badge of honor, nonetheless encourage the viewer to spin off in a web of associations.

Pittman packs a lot into these little works, and a little goes a long way here. Within the relatively cramped confines of these sheets of paper, he seems to have allowed himself a bit of freedom that enables these small works to deliver expansive results.

Christopher Miles