|Tricks with Dicks
A Review of "Lari Pittman at LACMA"
by Peter Frank
Pittman has emerged as a major figure in a new "school of Los Angeles."
In contrast to various of its local predecessors, this southern California
school embraces formal and material complexity, insists on conceptual and
emotional depth, and reacts to social issues in psychologically charged
|Pittman - whose mid-career retrospective
spans the 1980s as well as the last half-decade - is a true practitioner
of neo-expressionism. Better put, he is a practitioner of true neo-expressionism.
Instead of inchoately spewing his soul onto the canvas, Pittman genuinely
seeks to address complex subject matter.
|He presumes our ability to
comprehend multiple messages in a busy, compact painting. Also, he recognizes
that ideas and themes, no matter how diverse, must contrast and balance
|The success of Pittman's approach
stems partly from his inspired decision to modify neo-expressionism with
decidedly un-expressionist techniques, most notably the earmarks of 1970s
pattern painting. Rather than posit massive groupings of awkward figures,
his paintings bristle with signs rendered with exacting delicacy and often
archaic decorousness (Rococo filigree, Romantic-era silhouettes). His compositions
are marked with powerful rhythms and monumental symmetry.
|This balance of visual density and formal
cohesion marks even the earliest works in Pittman's retrospective. Although
probing and somewhat clumsy, the paintings from the early and mid-80s (some
built out from the wall) are as expansive, eclectic and witty as his more
recent works. The earlier pieces are in some ways the most affecting of
Pittman's works, because they are the least affected. They admit to artifice
as readily as anything Pittman has done since, but they exude the loopy
ingenuousness of a bright, eager student or large puppy. The sense of narrative
that runs through his more recent work courses coyly, through these map-
or rebus-like paintings.
Since then, Pittman has deliberately made affectation a central
factor in his work. In purely formal terms, the sometimes slick surfaces,
lurid palette, linear precision and increasing cartoon-like forms that
have characterized his painting in the last decade serve to clarify his
imagery, directing our attention to the subjects and messages (often explicitly
written, in Pop-like print or exaggeratedly delicate penmanship). But affectation
itself is a "subject" of Pittman's work, a declaration of identity
central to his efforts as an artist and a human being. Part of what Pittman
is saying is how he's saying it. Manner in this case is meaning.
|Pittman practices hyperbole,
elaboration, artifice and an edgy sensuousity, neither to break aesthetic
taboos, nor to shock, but to assert the validity and distinction of the
worldview underlying these characteristics. It is a pluralist view, appropriate
for a native resident a great multicultural center as well as the son of
parents from disparate ethnic backgrounds. It is also the view of a proud
minority wishing to explore his otherness. Many critics have cited Pittman's
homosexuality as a key factor in his style and subject matter. If anything,
however, his subjects are transmorphous in their polyperversity. The images
and inscriptions crowding his canvases throughout the last decade suggest
all manner of identity and interaction, sexual and otherwise.
|The most recent paintings, for instance,
brim with gangly, balloon-headed figures (rather like Indonesian shadow
puppets) whose gender is apparently female but whose genitalia are not.
Such hermaphroditism is hardly the exclusive province of gay men.
Pittman's gayness actually
manifests itself more directly in his style. His approach, balancing outrageous
excess and delicate, luminous refinement, knowingly and unapologetically
partakes of the camp aestheticÐwithout being trapped by it. His style
may be queer, but it is hardly hip. Nor, for that matter, is it masked,
fey, comically ugly or exaggeratedly beautiful. Pittman pronounces his
sexual identity in ways that barely hint at Warhol, Hockney, Bacon, or
any other gay male artists of previous generations.
His visual and conceptual models are in fact more feminist than effeminate:
with their reliance on patterning and decorative elaboration, Pittman's
pictures hark back to the "woman's work" of the 1970's.
Although heavily dependent on
homosexual tropes, Pittman's
iconography covers a wide
range. For Pittman's art, gayness
is not a raison d'etre or the subject per se; his sexuality is a crucial
component of his life and his view of the world. The volcanic energy
of the work is tinged with darkness, but affirms life in little less than
It may be melodramatic to attribute this mercurial energy
to Pittman's brush with mortality a decade ago when he was shot by a burglar
; his previous painting had much of this verve, if not as much flair. But
the long process of physical and psychological recovery did result in the
lifting of inhibitions, aesthetic, social and personal. The only remaining
aspect of Pittman's art that could be seen as inhibited is its exacting
techniqueÐmuch more exacting, ironically, than before the attack.
|Yes, Lari Pittman's art is
gay art. And yes, it is gay art of a more affirmative kind than almost
anything that has come before. But before it is gay art, it is good art.
It affirms Pittman's sexuality and his humanity, and his skill at conveying
both to a wide audience.