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.
In his new body of work, titled “From a Late Western Impaerium” (2013), Lari Pittman presents a kind of State of the Union address, articulated in his fantastical style of graphic symbols and meticulously rendered hyper-decoration. Alluding to the U.S. empire’s proclivity for psychic and physical violence, Pittman’s paintings—made of Cel-Vinyl and spray enamel and often consisting of multiple framed panels—strike a tone that is elegiac and quirkily lyrical. Over the eight panels of New National Anthem and Lamentation Duet with Birds (After Puccini), Pittman has scrawled his poetic complaint of disappointment and betrayal, appropriating the earnest, heart-wrenching lyrics of the Tosca aria “Vissi d’arte.” Despite the paintings’ high theatricality, allusions to applied arts (embroidery, carpet design) signal their homespun quality (he works with no studio assistants). His finely crafted compositions and deeply saturated palette hook us in to slow contemplative viewing.
The exhibition was commandeered by three 30-foot-wide paintings presented as “flying carpets.” As described in their titles, these works represent perspectives on a “violent,” “disturbed” and “distorted” nation. They are dominated by depictions of large circular forms: telescopic rifle sights, petri dishes and hand mirrors, respectively. These lenslike forms are surrounded by busy ornamentation, including fields of overlapping peacock feathers and sketches of ships, revolvers and architecture. Any escape Pittman’s flying carpets may proffer is provisional and compromised. The carpets are insistently flat, with no ripples or signs of movement. Trouble brews within their borders. Flying Carpet with Petri Dishes for a Disturbed Nation, for instance, features depictions of six oversize bullet holes, as though from a drive-by shooting.
Pittman has stated that these new works are interrelated and to be considered as a whole. Thus, the faces reflected in the six hand mirrors seen in Flying Carpet with Magic Mirrors for a Distorted Nation are perhaps meant to represent victims of violence. They are also inspired by portraits by Hermenegildo Bustos, a 19th-century Mexican painter of the middle class. In another work in homage to Bustos, 12 small portraits of ordinary folk are referred to in the title as “fayum” (mummy portraits); a group of paintings of egglike forms is called Twelve Reliquaries of Souls Trapped in Amber. The artist does not omit his personal experience of violence; text in one of the five panels of New Map of America refers to his 1985 near-fatal gunshot wound from a burglary. With their more abstract, quasi-architectural forms, the multi-panel works Pavilions Designed for Viewing First—World Atrocities and Staging Variations of an Opera for an Entropic Nation keep the exhibition from feeling too pointed or heavy-handed. The oblique is Pittman’s mode, as evident in the angled lines that crisscross all his works. But, overall, there is no denying the serious grappling with the ills of American culture. This series is not agitprop so much as poignant acknowledgment of our troubled, conflicted nature. In two paintings, embroidery hoops enclose petri-dish stews of brewing life; in their peripheries, large crisply striped Band-Aids dominate over smaller, sketchily drawn razor blades. Healing, not self-destruction, is the hoped-for future.