For me the art of the painter Lari Pittman is a lot like ice-skating. I never think about ice-skating, but when I see it on television, I am briefly in the thrall of its intricacies and surface perfection. I love all those double axels, triple lutzes, and salchows—even though I don’t know what they are. There’s something very comforting, if numbing, in the endless elaboration of a self-sufficient, arcane vocabulary.
Like champion ice-skating, Pittman’s paintings elicit amazingly enthusiastic accolades from commentators. His paintings have been described as “electrifying,” “extraordinary,” and “scintillating.” He has been compared to Whitman and Emerson, and variously positioned as “the most important U.S. painter of his generation,” “head and shoulders above just about everything else out there,” and “one of the decade’s most influential painters.”
But Pittman’s work is so totally self-enclosed you don’t really feel his influence anywhere. Among the best of the decorative-obsessive, perfect-surface, figuration-into-Pop-abstraction painters, Pittman dominates a category so unique he has to be the leader of it. His work feels like the culmination of something rather than a jumping-off point.
In this show, his art continues to exist in a world unto itself. It is highly realized and comely—a kind of managerial sublime. What makes Pittman’s third New York solo exhibition interesting is that it shows him trying to break out of the perfect world of his art and expand into new territory. But in the end this may create more problems than it solves.
The new Pittmans are less densely patterned and impenetrable than the old ones. There is less animation and visual energy—less of a pulsating, curvilinear wholeness, and more fiddling with the parts. The sexy bas-relief surface is gone, replaced by a one-dimensional here-to-thereness. Except in one or two instances, his color feels grayed out or too consistent. Instead of being evenly pulverized, these paintings are interrupted by larger compositional zones or the heads of adolescent and young boys. Maybe we’re supposed to think of cruising the Internet looking for sex or love. The boys are beautiful, but they don’t help the paintings come alive. Pittman’s undulating polyrhythms have turned methodical; whole areas just go dead. His paintings have devolved into oversized Web sites. So what happened?
From 1988 to 1996, Pittman was in the zone. The paintings of this period buzz with overheated Edwardian excess and crazy, compulsive fastidiousness—the apotheosis of the all-over Gothic. He said his imagery alluded to gay subject matter, but Pittman was less a painter of gay pride than of fussy pride. He had a Midas touch for decoration. The surfaces of these paintings erupted into meticulous, anti-Victorian porno passages: a cum shot splatter, layered in loving exactitude; a phallic candle dripping viscous, semenesque paint. In the old Pittmans, you could cut through the undergrowth of patterning and piece together ambiguous narratives as little erotic surprises would pop out: an owl with an open vagina, a lighthouse with the head of a penis, little figures with big erections, anuses spouting rays of light or depositing gorgeously decorated piles of poop.
It was anal-retentive ragtime: syncopated, sophisticated, intoxicated, and hot. Pittman poured his imagination into an extremely rigid form. These paintings were never improvisational; everything was planned. The work was marked by alternating streaks of melancholia and delirium; words like S.O.S. or R.I.P. and jubilant shrieks of “Cum n’ Git It!” or “Hey Girl, Love-Sexi!” peppered his surfaces. Like ragtime, which was born in the parlors of bordellos, Pittman’s paintings seemed to bubble up from some internal house of ill repute.
Still, Pittman must have known he had to open up his work; he had to give the viewer a place to enter. Hence the unfilled areas and accessible imagery. The new work has zeal, but it lacks some essential ingredient to hold the eye. Good for a moment, over time the new paintings go static. You know he knows how to make these paintings, and that they are painstakingly difficult, but labor alone isn’t enough. Dealing with the decorative is not trangressive if you don’t deal with it in new ways.
Pittman’s media landscapes of the soul have turned into morality plays and ethics lessons. The sex has been replaced by sexual identity, and ideas once hidden are now up front. Several of the works have slogans written on them. One says “Radiantly, at 60 I Will Become a Woman”; another, “Caution Avoid Skin Contact”; another, “Danger Restricted Area.” These paintings are dangerously close to becoming billboards. Pittman is so on-message in this show he seems almost hectoring. The large painting with the five faces has the word Queenliness showering the boys with light. You can almost hear the commercial tag line: “A Painting About Being Who You Are When You Don’t Know What That Is.” A creeping sentimentality is strangling Pittman’s art. So little doubt, combined with so much tightness, makes the work feel tyrannical. The message that surely started in Pittman’s heart looks like it has gone to his head.