You sense his ambition right from the get-go. Not career ambition, necessarily – though that must have been a part of it, and would even have been a political position for a queer Latino painter in 1980s Los Angeles – but an ambition to cover more ground in a single painting than had hitherto seemed possible, or desirable.
Lari Pittman’s sweeping retrospective survey Declaration of Independence opens with an early work conveniently (presciently?) titled Birthplace (1984). At that time, Pittman was already up and running, eight years out of CalArts, where he had been influenced by the Feminist Art Program run by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. (As a man, he was not officially eligible to enrol.) Birthplace, compared to Pittman’s subsequent candied treats, is a relatively wholegrain offering: on cork veneer, abstracted tangles of foliage contribute to what is probably the closest Pittman has ever come to making a landscape. Elsewhere in the painting are the germinating seeds of much of what came after: sharp lines in Pittman’s unmistakable calligraphic hand; masked and sprayed silhouettes; decorated, appropriated folk art (including parts of a carved and painted chair); areas of gross impasto; pictures within the picture – including one work on paper, framed and stuck in a corner of the canvas, then decorated some more.
Birthplace is not an easy painting to like – I’m not sure I do – but, somewhat to my surprise, it casts the 30-plus years of work that follows not as a compendium of detached, calculated gestures of ironic appropriation, quotation and pastiche (this is an artist, remember, who came of age with the Pictures Generation), but rather as the inevitable unfurling of a selfhood that was authentically whole from the beginning. Pittman has talked a lot over the years about the construction of the queer public self – about coding and drag, about ‘fixing up’ and ‘dolling up’. As Declaration of Independence makes abundantly clear, even when he was dolling up his paintings during the late 80s and early 90s with references from the world at large – credit-card logos or Victorian silhouettes, for example – he was able to convincingly integrate them in an interior vision that was entirely his own.
While Pittman’s work has long been characterised by its unpatronising accessibility and winning sense of humour, Declaration of Independence is not an easy show. The most extensive presentation of his work to date and the biggest of any the Hammer has ever staged, the exhibition – as with every single one of his paintings or drawings – is overwhelmingly full of information. Overwhelming but never overbearing. By the part of the (chronological) hang pertaining to the mid-2000s, I had surrendered myself to the pleasant sensation of being washed along on the currents of Pittman’s psyche. Responding to the surrealist ‘inscapes’ of Roberto Matta, it was at this period in his career when still lifes began to feature more frequently in his paintings, and a muted, more cohesive palette allowed diverse motifs to blend rather than clash and squabble among themselves.
For me, the highlight of the exhibition was – fittingly – an exhibition in itself: a room given over to Pittman’s drawings, hung salon-style against a painted blue trellis, emulating a similar installation, Orangerie, at Regen Projects, Los Angeles, in 2010. If at times encountering Pittman’s work en masse can feel excessive, this selective overview of bracingly varied works on paper – none less ambitious than any of his paintings – vividly illustrated just how much ground Pittman has managed to cover.
Lari Pittman: Declaration of Independence, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 29 September 2019 – 5 January 2020
From the December 2019 issue of ArtReview