Art Review: Lari Pittman at Regen Projects and Regen Projects II


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A pair of extraordinary exhibitions by Lari Pittman proposes that visitors stop thinking about artists’ oeuvres in terms of bodies and start thinking about them in terms of crops.

For the last few centuries, critics and historians have treated artists as mothers, organizing the products of their painful labors into bodies of work and describing these metaphorical children as if they had their own personalities yet were bound by family resemblances.


Pittman’s dual exhibitions, at Regen Projects and Regen Projects II, are the 39th and 40th solo shows of his career. Together, they insist that people and paintings are profoundly different sorts of offspring; that bodily metaphors work for the former but not the latter; and that such old-fashioned thinking falls short of describing the artist’s relationship to his voluminous output, not to mention the way that it works in the world.

Think of Pittman’s vertiginous pictures of flowers, birds and puppets, as well as pods, fruits and flow charts, laboratories, labyrinths and kitchens, as the impossible progeny of an exotic, hothouse blossom and a common, hard-to-kill thistle. Breathlessly beautiful and tough as nails, his quixotic hybrids combine exquisite pleasure with grubby pragmatism to turn the world upside-down, inside-out and into a place that is a whole lot better than it was before he got his hands on it.

The daily labors farmers and gardeners undertake to ensure bountiful harvests, year in and year out, rhyme with the way Pittman works — and the way his art looks. This is especially clear in “Orangerie,” the exhibition dedicated to the 58-year-old painter’s works on paper from 1980-2010.

It’s an awesome, jaw-dropping survey that includes approximately 120 images, some in books (designed by Jonathan Hammer and written by Dennis Cooper) but most hung floor-to-ceiling on all the walls, which have been painted by Norm Laich in a trellis pattern.

Pittman’s drawings hang from the 2-D trellis like ripe fruits and rare flowers. They are not hung in chronological order. Instead, they’re arranged aesthetically, their palettes, shapes and subjects forming complex dramas.

Initially, the installation is overwhelming. But it’s too sexy to shy away from.

Heightened attentiveness makes discriminating differences exciting. Not much is required to be able to pick out the comparatively crude drawings from the early ’80s, their awkward innocence and tentative bravery sweetly endearing, even corny, in relation to the ferocious elegance and operatic sophistication to come.

Lumpen figures appear in “Egg Sac” (1982), “Angstgefuhl (Feelings of Fear)” (1981) and “The Monarch” (1984). Abstract clusters of organic matter have plenty of room to grow in “Checks and Balances” (1982), “Territorial Rights” (1984) and several untitled monoprints from 1981-84. And the strange bird portrayed in the nearly 7-foot-long “Traveling Alone” (1982) is part roadrunner, part chicken, part woodpecker and all Pittman — a misfit convinced that it makes more sense for society to adapt itself to his vision than for him to fit into its conventions.

In the mid-’80s, the density and detail of Pittman’s abstract imagery intensifies exponentially. In “Farming the Self” (1986), illegible language fragments sprout from loamy fields. In “Tending the Farm” (1986), these loopy forms become pods and bottles. They get bigger and bolder and more whimsically Surreal in two works from 1987, “Where Curiosity and Diversity Will Grow Like Weeds (2737 A.D.)” and “Where Valor Will Produce the More Complex Bloom (6823 A.D.)”

In the ‘90s, Pittman’s pictures get more graphic and dynamic. Victorian silhouettes, stylized owls, disembodied eyeballs and all manner of decanters, beakers, vessels and vases draw viewers into tumultuous mixtures of color, texture and shape, as well as mood, atmosphere and sentiment.

Over the last decade, Pittman has continued to polish his skills as a colorist, creating indescribably vibrant combinations of weird tertiary tints that dazzle the eye and blow the mind. Compositional complexity, designer virtuosity, narrative ambiguity and sheer, visual genius pack his 16 works on paper from 2010 with more mesmerizing energy than anything else in “Orangerie.”

And his other show is even better. Bolder, more condensed and efficient, it packs everything surveyed in 30 years of drawings into 10 amazing paintings, all made this year. Think of each as a gorgeous bouquet meticulously assembled from what is on display in “Orangerie.”

In both shows, nature and culture are cut from the same cloth. Nothing meaningful distinguishes organic from artificial. If Oscar Wilde were alive today, he would be at home among Pittman’s luscious crops, which are as outlandish and fanciful, flowery and formal, preposterous and promiscuous as Wilde’s prose.

-- David Pagel

Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive and Regen Projects II, 9016 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 276-5424, through Oct. 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Images, from top: Lari Pittman ‘Orangerie’; ‘Untitled #4’; ‘Untitled #7. Credit: Courtesy Regen Projects