Lari Pittman, Diorama 1, 2021, Cel-Vinyl and lacquer spray paint on canvas, 80 × 96".

Lari Pittman, Diorama 1, 2021, Cel-Vinyl and lacquer spray paint on canvas, 80 × 96".

Lari Pittman

Lari Pittman, who has unabashedly embraced the decorative ever since his exposure to the Feminist Art Program at CalArts in the 1970s, can pull off the most conceptually complex paintings of subject matter conventionally deemed frivolous, including fine jewelry. In his first Paris solo show, individual pieces from two parures—sets of matching jewelry that were popular in early-nineteenth-century Europe—appeared as quasi-Pop still lifes across a group of five large-scale, delicately made paintings, each titled Diorama and numbered 1 through 5 (all works 2021). Lured in by the gemstones that stood out from elaborately patterned brownish backgrounds—loosely based on ornate historical textiles, such as those of the British Arts and Crafts movement—viewers might have found themselves repulsed by the creepy-crawly creatures roaming among the bijouterie—two ravens towering atop a tiara, rodents climbing a ring, a caterpillar inching up a chandelier earring, a bunch of moths and other insects lurking around some necklaces—and by the thoughts of death, decay, and transience they could unleash.

Such intimations of mortality also pervaded a group of smaller-scale, darkly colored paintings of decorated gourds, Dioramas 6–14, which Pittman partly made in Mexico and which were apparently inspired by local folk-art traditions. Here the gourds—a recurring motif in his work—exude an aura of mystery. Bathed in twilight, they are surrounded by wood carvings of crocodiles, fish, and ritual masks, whose eyes stare forebodingly at the viewer. Like the jewelry paintings, these seemed to be contemporary adaptations of memento mori and vanitas still lifes. Of course, dioramas often deal with death or absence by bringing historically or geographically remote scenes into the present. And in the lower quarter of each painting, Pittman applied a white or light-gray grid that recalled a viewing rail, placing the viewer at a distance from the imagery. Rather than serving as religious reminders of the brevity of life and the futility of its riches, Pittman’s Dioramas amount to an investigation into the cause of decoration’s disappearance in the modern period.

On closer inspection of the elaborate details of Dioramas 1–5, one could tell that pieces of jewelry are unobtrusively marked with dates: 1776, 1789, 1863, 1871, 1944, respectively. But the plot kept thickening, as Pittman had taken artistic freedom with these dates, which are unmistakably yet perplexingly those of important liberatory events from US and French history. Casting additional doubt on the realism promised by the diorama as a genre was the presence in each of these paintings of a pristine white egg, poetically hovering between the viewing rails and adding a more hopeful note. Playing with clues and fiction, double coding, and conflicting interpretations, Pittman’s dizzying dioramic paintings destabilized the viewer’s relation to truth. Neither still lifes nor history paintings, pace the gallery press release, and eschewing both didactic moralism and descriptive objectivity, the works interlace past moments of liberation with more recent ones, the history of France and that of the US, the major and the minor, the male and the female. Opening after the long French lockdowns, Pittman’s “Dioramas” was a reminder that reopening did not mean simply coming back to life, but that life and death coexisted to begin with.