Lari Pittman, Mar. 23-May 4, 2002, at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
Out of the painting void that existed in late 1970s Los Angeles, Lari Pittman gave birth -- if that's the right turn of phrase -- to his particular form of painting. If painting then was nothing, Pittman's paintings were everything at once: filigrees, drips, puddles, dots, washes, textures, pasting, varnish, alkyd, spray paint, collage, abstraction, figuration, typography, narrative, decoration -- almost every conceivable form and theory was woven together except, noticeably, the hetero-machismo of Abstract Expressionism.
This mix of diametric opposites is part of what drives Pittman's paintings. Encountering a Pittman work from the mid-'80s for the first time can be an epiphany. They're imbued with a weird mix of ugly and beautiful, superficial and deep: competing tertiary colors, obnoxious type and an overtly gay vocabulary that still manages to remain shrouded and personal. With these paintings, it's easy to picture Pittman -- desperate, freaking out, drenched in Los Angeles -- experimenting with whatever came to mind.
Almost 30 years later, Pittman, now 50, has continued expanding on his vocabulary, albeit within increasingly confined Pittman-esque borders. In general, Pittman's work has gotten more full of "stuff" as the years go by. His earliest paintings were comparatively spare. Over the years, his canvases have gradually grown more and more populated, turning in effect from towns into cities and generally taking one particular image as a recurring motif throughout a series: owls, for instance, or Visa and Mastercard credit cards.
A quick inventory of the objects populating Pittman's current paintings at Barbara Gladstone shows a peculiarly maritime bent. Sailing ships have been significant in Pittman's paintings before, but never quite this emphatically. Along with a pair of black and white Photo Realistic eyes that keeps cropping up ninja-like in painting after painting, the canvases are tangled with lanyards, yardarms, cutty sarks, wood and woodscrew combinations, captain lamps and -- over and over again -- images of the ocean itself. In one mild departure, a Seahawk helicopter hovers over the water in the lower right corner of the canvas, while a Los Angeles Class (so-called) submarine surfaces in the upper left.
The imagery in Pittman's paintings can be more or less "read," though in the spirit of free-association. An image of the sea, for instance, signifies the sea itself, stands in for the futility of man against nature, and also represents a host of ambivalent feelings about the sea -- from the life-giving to the death-bringing. When Pittman paints the word "hey" into a composition, we read it as the exclamation "hey" and also as a pictorial accent, like a splash of red paint.
About halfway through writing this text, a friend idly emailed to ask what I was up to. I told her I was writing a review of the Lari Pittman show in Chelsea, and she -- not being especially compelled by contemporary art, but curious and probably restless at work -- dutifully conducted a survey of Pittman's oeuvre on the Internet. "Poor guy," she wrote back a while later. "He seems much happier now."
With her dilettante's eye, my friend had stumbled upon that old cliché, "Good for the man, bad for the painter," and like the cliché about clichés, in this case it happens to be true.
If you put your hands up, movie-director style, and frame sections of the larger canvases, they work well. Mostly, though, the sense is that alongside greater and greater success (most of the paintings at Gladstone go for $60,000, with larger ones priced at $90,000 and drawings at $12,900), Pittman has grown overly familiar with his own work.
A large part of contemporary painting is about trying to escape the confines of art history, both on an individual and a larger social level. Pittman's new paintings have lost that sense of experimentation. In the older works, he didn't give a fuck and showed people what they were wanting to see (but of course didn't know that they wanted to see), and it what made him famous.
What's to dislike in virtuosity? It tends toward formula. Once he established his blueprint, Pittman simply expanded its size rather than its parameters. The result is an increasingly denuded treatment rather than a realization of where his strength lay -- in unflinching experimentation.