Lari Pittman (born 1952), a professor at UCLA and a participant in Biennials of the Whitney and Venice varieties, is not yet a household name. It’s not easy to describe his oeuvre, as it frankly upends the neat subject-matter classifications of figurative painting. The works on display in ‘Declaration of Independence’ are not fully landscapes, history paintings or depictions of the human figure, but they’re certainly not totally abstract. There are recognisable objects in space that float close to the surface of the picture plane; there are decorative patterns and architectural flourishes; there is text in a variety of fonts and styles; there are sometimes disembodied body parts that are presented in various degrees of eroticism. There is always an eye for bright colour, and a penchant for twisting the decorative into something unsettling and chaotic. It’s a testament to the strength of the show that it not only introduces us to Pittman’s incredible range, but gives us enough depth to familiarise us with his recurring motifs and hallmarks, allowing us to find a thread through the galleries.
Many of Pittman’s works explore the promise and reality of loving and surviving as a gay man in the United States, including during the AIDS epidemic, in ways both subtle and overt. But Pittman goes beyond simple depiction to express his queerness: his identity is intrinsically linked to how he paints. As the show highlights in an early wall text, Pittman’s queerness separated him from the “exclusively male and heterosexual” Conceptual Art movement in Los Angeles, leading him to look beyond what the male-dominated side of the art world had to offer. As a result, Pittman was influenced by the women artists he met at CalArts, such as Vija Celmins and Miriam Schapiro, as well as by the traditionally feminine disciplines of textiles and quilt art.
Pittman’s early compositions in the 1970s and 1980s nod to Miro, Rauschenberg, and Hieronymus Bosch, and gradually reveal a fascination with American history and mythology in works like “An American Place” (1986). In the “Beloved and Despised” series (1989-1990) he manipulates Victorian silhouetted figures (in a Kara Walker-esque manner) into subversive, evocative configurations amidst elegant cursive numbers. His “Needy” suite of the early 1990s, reflecting a politically volatile era in the United States, is littered with suggestive fluids and body parts. A mysterious owl figure with a vagina haunts these compositions, with the number “69” echoing like an omen. His “Once a Noun, Now a Verb” series of the late 1990s recalls Lichtenstein’s graphic-novel punchiness and predicts the neat line and electric palette of contemporary street artist Ben Eine. All in all, it’s a declaration of independence from any particular school of art, and, most significantly, from the limited visual language of so-called “good taste.”
Delights can be found in each neatly defined section of this exhibition. Among the earlier works, “Reason to Rebuild” (1986) balances hard-edged black and white rectangles with translucent, gossamer sacs containing embryonic-looking forms. “How Sweet the Day After This and That, Deep Sleep Is Truly Welcomed” (1988), a horizontal mural-style work, curiously absorbs smaller, framed drawings into its overall composition. A jewel-like room within a room is given over to the installation “Orangerie” (2010), which sees Pittman’s shifting styles collide against a blue-on-blue diamond wall pattern. The effect is dazzling.
The most pointed and thought-provoking works, however, are in the final section of the show, which features Pittman’s output since 2013. The “Flying Carpet” series consists of massive paintings about America’s gun violence epidemic, replete with an elaborate visual language of symbols and icons that characterise Pittman’s idiosyncratic style. The surfaces of Pittman’s paintings are so slick and polished that your eye can glide across them—except for the astonishing “Flying Carpet with a Waning Moon Over a Violent Nation,” in which Pittman’s usually clear line and colour are disrupted by deliberate blurring. These sections are positioned as the unfocused scopes of five rifles in a line that sight a distant landscape in five red-trimmed circles. Do these tapestry-sized paintings reference the unreality of flying carpets to draw attention to the manufactured fantasy of American attitudes toward gun culture? Or do they suggest that this kind of violent potential is woven into the fabric of humanity?
‘Declaration of Independence’ is precisely the kind of show the Hammer Museum at UCLA should be mounting: it presents in nearly exhausting depth and breadth the sweeping career of a local artist who has, until now, been unappreciated. The exhibition serves to add a new cacophonous set of textures, attitudes and artistic methods to the canon in Los Angeles beyond Minimalism, Conceptualism, and the sleek surfaces of the “Cool School.”