With the intensity and drive of a visionary, Los Angeles painter Lari Pittman has been honing a forceful and idiosyncratic approach to picture-making for more than three decades. His quasi-abstract imagery often harbors acerbic commentary addressing hot-button issues like social inequity and sexual identity. For his recent show at Gladstone, Pittman unveiled a new series, “Nuevos Caprichos” (2015)—eight large-scale paintings on canvas mounted on wood panel that feature the kind of disjointed imagery, fragmented text and vibrant, flat surfaces for which he is well known. As a series, the works may be Pittman’s most cohesive to date, both visually and thematically. In fact, the show at first appeared to comprise a single, multi-panel installation.
Uniform in size (96 by 86 inches) and made with refined brushstrokes in Cel-Vinyl, a type of paint favored by cartoonists, the works convey an imposing, billboardlike sense of urgency. Pittman was inspired here by Goya’s celebrated etching suite “Los Caprichos.” Published in 1799, Goya’s 80 satirical and often grotesque scenes condemn the hypocrisy, superstition and abuses of power rampant in 18th-century Spanish life.
Pittman’s series corresponds to “Los Caprichos” in many ways. The palette—muted browns, greens, blues and oranges—is substantially more subdued than that of his previous works and is well suited to Goya’s dark vision. Pittman’s wildly distorted figures sometimes echo the Spaniard’s grotesqueries, and his pristine surfaces resemble prints, their saturated colors and texture recalling those of woodcuts. The paintings also explore themes similar to those of Goya’s suite, albeit in Pittman’s more abstract visual language. A unifying motif in the series is the domino. In Goya’s day, the word “domino” meant lord or master. Each of Pittman’s panels shows one or more dominoes that clue the viewer in to the themes of domination that pervade the work. Bands of stylized text in each piece, fragments of lines Pittman borrowed from Emily Dickinson poems, address pain, violence and death.
One of the most striking works on view, Capricho #6, shows on the left a man with an enlarged head wearing a yellow hat that suggests an African kufi, a blue rope tied tightly around his neck. His abstracted body, draped in a dashiki-type garment and with an elongated penis hanging between his legs, is barely discernible. Nevertheless, the figure quite clearly represents a hanged man. Bands of blocky lettering arranged helter-skelter across the picture plane contain statements like “PAIN CONTRACTS THE TIME” and “PAIN EXPANDS THE TIME” and other references to violence and suffering.
Another work that enthralls, either despite or because of its ultraviolent imagery, is Capricho #4, which depicts on the right a large, green birdlike creature wielding a sword with its beak. It appears to be in the act of decapitating a wildly distorted yellow-headed personage on the far left that seems to be screaming in agony. Ribbonlike passages of script bear cryptic phrases such as “AFTER GREAT PAIN” and “LIKE TOMBS.”
Pittman, who was shot and seriously wounded by a robber in 1985, knows firsthand the trauma of violence and being near death. It’s certainly probable that the experience figured into his desire to create “Nuevos Caprichos,” which echoes the kind of violence and aggression that turn up in the news every day. In this tightly organized series, Pittman lends a passionate and personal resonance to the theme.