September 23 – October 22, 2011
No contemporary painter produces overload with as much restraint as Lari Pittman. For more than 30 years the unstoppable force of his pictorial imagination has collided head-on with the immovable object of his impeccable production, over and over, to the point of what would be, in less capable hands, overkill. His best pictures are so perfectly yet tenuously balanced that even the smallest rogue element (say, heaven forbid, a wayward drip) would bring the entire house of cards crashing down. Looking back over my numerous experiences with Pittman’s work from the past two decades, I am now much more self-consciously aware of the degree to which it functions as a house and a home, as a place of comfort and control, all at once, as well as the site of stability and instability, again, all at once. In this exhibition, Pittman has installed five of the paintings in what can be seen, based upon their components as well as their titles, as a “music room.” And even though he’s done this in the back gallery, it’s still a provocative move.
At some point in 2004 or, more likely, 2005, Pittman’s paintings grabbed my attention more forcefully than they had in several years. At the time I thought it was due to their apparent return to what I considered the “grungier” aspects of his earliest production, reworking such things as an eye-catching scratchiness and less bombastic colors into their still highly considered mix. It’s not that I was completely unconvinced by the work just prior, just less enthralled by the bracing simplicity of its more graphic and pop frontage. Taking this current exhibition into consideration, I now know that my attention was regained just as much by the domesticity of many of the paintings from 2005 and 2006, pictures that were themselves “views” of a dining room, living room, kitchen, or bedroom. It was as if those paintings were literally brought home in order that Pittman’s entire project could be restructured, or, better yet, renovated. And even though no paintings completed between 2006 and this show have again made direct reference to a room, it is quite clear that the implications have held steady in both structural and emotional terms. (It is also obvious—given that the show is made up of 12 substantial paintings and one 24-panel work on paper, called “Orangerie,” all from this year—that Pittman is on a roll.)
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a painting like “Music Room,” leaves no room for us to go “into” it. (And just in case we don’t get that, there is a visually disjunctive, white diagonal band that nearly divides the canvas in half, from upper left to lower right.) What is surprising is the straightforward extent to which it incorporates numerous stylized depictions of stringed instruments into its “landscape” orientation without a stitch of irony. Accompanied in the “music room” of the gallery by four “portrait” paintings, each named after an emotionally overwrought musical term (“Saeta,” “Saudade,” “Pavane,” and “Fado”), the larger painting is itself the “home” of the others, creating a compositional completeness in the space that mirrors the pictures themselves.
Even without such a framework, many of the best paintings in the other rooms of the exhibition maintain a similarly high level of interior organizational clarity. Two paintings in the reception area, “Animus” and “Anima,” actually place balloon-shaped portrait heads into formal structures mimicking the shape of a house, backed with “walls” of vibrant color, domestic accoutrements, and, tellingly, the numerals from the year of Pittman’s birth, 1952. Therefore, the portraits can’t be self-portraits, but rather particularly gender-bending representations of Jung’s role-reversing labels for aspects of the collective unconscious, all of which are given precision, rest, and refuge in the House of Pittman.
Never before has the House of Pittman been so clear: “Grand Tour,” for example, is its own picture gallery in which faded images of landscapes and still life setups are rendered as if they were printed snapshots of poignant memories. Likewise, “Seance” includes two of these images, but in this case they are on what can only be described as a worktable, complete with an image of a distinctive pair of ergonomic shears poised in mid-cut, and ringed by a clothesline upon which additional (yet ghostly) pages have been pinned. With these two paintings in the mix, Pittman’s latest exhibition proves especially potent, bringing even the studio itself into his well-maintained house and home as the primary juncture of the unstoppable and the immovable, brought together with purpose and with joy.
ContributorTerry R. Myers
is a writer and independent curator based in Los Angeles, and an Editor-at-Large of the Rail.