Los Angeles-based artist Lari Pittman first received broad exposure in the late 1980s, partly in the wake of an immediately precedent “Pattern and Decoration” movement. Paintings in this vein reflect not only an interest in textile and printing techniques but also design strategies and aspects of first-wave feminist art. Picked up on by Pittman, along with Ross Bleckner, Philip Taaffe, and a few other peers, this overarching sensibility was oppositional to the brash Neo-Expressionism that then dominated the international contemporary art scene. Since then, Pittman’s style has been featuring color-blocked and patterned passages juxtaposed on seamless painted surfaces, punctuated by contoured and silhouetted figurative elements. The latter typically indicate, often somewhat enigmatically, gender tropes, gay identities, and, increasingly, themes of injustice and social violence.
What: “Lari Pittman: Found Buried”
Where: Lehmann Maupin, 501 West 24th Street, New York, NY 10011
When: March 5 – August 28, 2020, M – F, 10:00 – 6:00*
*Face masks and social distancing required.
The works here target colonialism’s ravages in the Americas and seem to re-image and re-mix remnants of represented material culture. His fragmentary compositional mode (as above) infused with this subject matter suggests a new kind of history painting —one that intrinsically deconstructs narrative, and offers instead thematic constellations. Large-scale paintings depict broken, wooden-like figures evoking objects and images like Hopi kachina dolls and indigenous Meso and South American sartorial signifiers and body adornment.
Intermingled with the figures across the picture plane are modern and ancient objects and implements such as tools, weapons, bones, pots, European ships, and armor, all rhythmically arranged among patterns of natural forms. A framing band of ornamentation in most paintings, together with bird’s eye viewpoints, suggests blankets or tapestries. But also, given the series title and overall earthy tonality, opened graves. Ground areas are partly defined by an impressive array of painting effects, from simulated textures to digital imaging and photographic finishes, along with linear flourishes.
In several interviews, Pittman has remarked that he wants to be called an artist rather than a painter per se, understandably indicating a fuller imprimatur. Yet, distinctive qualities of his technique emerge primarily vis-à-vis its departure from more familiar marks of painting craft, which, thereby, remains a central reference. In addition, his nuanced, saturated palette conveys an affinity for paint mediums.
Most of the paintings depict or implicate dismemberment. The especially bloody, “Found Buried #1, “among others, calls up the sacrificial and supernatural carved up bodies seen in Maya and Aztec art.
A few, including “Found Buried #2,” are more ambiguous in broaching the atavistic, buried roots of human hubris and conflict.
A group of mixed-media works on paper make explicit the textile design connection latent in the paintings and bring the topos of labor to the fore within the tentacled terrain of colonialism. In “Found Buried: Textile for a Wedding Dress,” for example, repeated ornamental axes and gourd-like forms are superimposed on an abstract geometric backdrop.
Hammers, handsaws, and drinking vessels are among other repeated icons that hover over foliated motifs across these works. They bear a resemblance to commemorative printed cloth produced across Africa, adapted from colonial-era so-called Dutch wax types derived from Indonesian prototypes, and bring full circle the complicated pathways of post-colonial heritage trails still to be uncovered and navigated. In this related art adventure by Pittman, a formalist excavation is as engaging as the provoked excavation of its metaphorical content.