Over the last five years or so, storytelling has caught fire.
For all kinds of reasons, people no longer presume that stories are for kids, read by parents when tucking their children into bed. Nor do we presume that the best narrative fiction is to be found in the arts, including literature, theater, movies and, last but not least, painting, sculpture and photography.
Politics, and the culture that has spun out of it, weaves together fact and fiction in ways that put the arts to shame. Wilder and weirder — and with unbelievable cheekiness — contemporary political discourse is a hot mess of storytelling, its spectacular, hyper-theatricized dramas capturing our passions — and manipulating our interests — more ambitiously — and effectively — than most artists even dream of.
But do not count Lari Pittman in that number.
At Regen Projects, the L.A. artist’s exhibition of a dozen mismatched diptychs reveals that storytelling is alive and well in the visual arts — and that it sometimes takes shape with more promise and empowerment than when it’s left to professional politicians and the political commentators who do their jobs by striking postures that pander to prejudice.
Titled “Portraits of Textiles & Portraits of Humans,” Pittman’s radically eccentric exhibition begins by undermining a big assumption visitors commonly bring to art.
We usually assume that portraits are for people and that textiles are decorative, a matter of pattern and pleasantness as well as background enhancement. Pittman scrambles such “either/or” exclusivity by painting portraits of each. Stars and supporting casts switch positions. Power shifts from artist to viewer, from making to looking, from story to interpretation.
Pittman’s diptychs consist of a color-coordinated pair of pictures: an approximately 27- by 23-inch painting of a cartoon human and a nearly 7- by 6-foot painting of an animated pattern.
The humans are unsettling. Many look unbalanced, as if they might be crazy.
As with all things Pittman, craziness comes in all shapes and stripes. Some of his figures embody the nuttiness of distant relatives, whose norm-defying oddness makes them both attractive and just a little off-putting. Others have the presence of people who have lost everything, perhaps aristocrats whose fortunes have vanished many generations ago or people who started with little, have less than nothing left and are in need of institutionalization.
Above all else, Pittman’s individuals are empathetic. Their faces convey a range of emotions that is nothing if not nuanced. Regret, sorrow and incomprehension can be detected, along with sweetness and stubbornness and an unwillingness to give into cynicism and despair — if only just barely. Their vulnerability hits you in the solar plexus.
The textiles are equally complex.
Plenty of imagery is visible, including larger-than-life-size workshop tools, gardening implements, nooses, church keys and money bags, along with crows, snakes, chalices, picture frames and sailboats. Gigantic flowers and miniature houses, often of the haunted variety, appear frequently. The same goes for outlandish seedpods and alien insects. Some resemble the offspring of abstract chickens and sci-fi spaceships. Others seem to be the inbred offspring of the cartoon characters corporations invent to sell everything from canned vegetables to life insurance.
A master of off-balanced composition — or highly stylized turbulence — Pittman superimposes all his razor-sharp graphics atop equally animated arrangements of angled racing stripes, solid blocks of garishly tinted colors — often in queasy combinations — and a cornucopia of stylized fruits and leafy vines, some realistic, others far-fetched.
The labyrinthine patterns never let your eyes rest. While making your heart race, they kick your intellect into high gear.
“Figure the story out for yourself,” Pittman’s paintings scream. “To take reality at face value is to cede too much power to those who tell tall tales and could not care less about your interests, never mind your needs and desires.”
In Pittman’s deeply humanistic exhibition, the devil may be in the details. But so is the truth.
‘Lari Pittman: Portraits of Textiles & Portraits of Humans’
Where: Regen Projects, 6750 Santa Monica Blvd.
When: Through Oct. 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays
Info: (310) 276-5424, www.regenprojects.com