LARI PITTMAN, the revered Los Angeles–based painter and UCLA arts professor, fills his canvas with whorls of clashing color, light bulbs, legs, eyes, birds, flowers, romantic Victorian black paper cut-out figures, gunsights, magic carpets, arrows, tethers, and multivalent dew-drops. Pittman’s election to permeate his art with operatic images that simultaneously frighten, soothe, and seduce, issues from his understanding of the irreducible nature of human experience. Pittman, who is Colombian American, has found long-term love with his husband, Roy Dowell, weathered the cacophony of Los Angeles for his entire adult life, and once confronted terrible violence: in 1985 he suffered a gunshot wound to the abdomen during a robbery. While Pittman’s work is not biographical in any strict sense of the word, his engagement with the touchstones of human existence — tenderness, confusion, brutality — manifest in his paintings as a thunderous multiplicity. Coming up on the close of his retrospective at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Declaration of Independence (September 29, 2019–January 5, 2020), he spoke with Yxta Maya Murray about his work.
YXTA MAYA MURRAY: When did you start bringing abundance to the canvas? By this I mean the crowded, bristling opulence and overflow of your imagery, which we find in works such as Plymouth Rock (1985), Once a Noun, Now a Verb #5 (1998), and your artist’s books, like have you seen . . . (1991).
LARI PITTMAN: I would have to say, right from the beginning, that I don’t have a reductive bone in my body. With respect to your idea of abundance, I think it’s what the real world looks like. [Laughs.] The beauty of America is its multiculturalism — the simultaneity of multiculturalism and the junkiness of the world.
You’ve made work about very painful things — violence, death, illness, loss. I’m thinking in particular of Flying Carpet with a Waning Moon Over a Violent Nation (2013), which contains gunsights as motifs, and Transformational and Needy (1990), which depicts a weeping owl. These traumas bring us to our knees, but your work creates a world where can contemplate them without being destroyed.
I’m responding to the fact that we’re increasingly internalizing such high dosages of violence in our society that I think we’re nearing empathy fatigue. Psychological violence, physical violence — we can’t even process it. But we can slow it down through momentum of a painting, which just slows it down and takes a look at it in a different way.
“Slowing it down” — that’s such an interesting phrase. Do you think that you are doing this by offering beauty in the paintings? I understand that beauty is a very contested term and can even be seen as dangerous.
Oh, I never tire of talking about beauty, because I am an avid homemaker. My husband and I have always made beautiful homes for ourselves, because that is our place to relax and feel safe in the world. So the beauty that I surround myself with in my private life is inextricable from my paintings. It creates a safe space with which and through which you can contemplate privately all sorts of issues that may be very difficult, very private. Actually, the analog nature of painting creates a physical safe space through which you can contemplate many of the difficult and negative issues that you brought up earlier.
But to confront our humanity by “slowing it down” through the analog process of looking at a painting — that’s making a big ask of museums and galleries. Are they creating havens where this kind of work can be done between the artist, the art object, and the viewer?
Museums and galleries, they do spectacle best at this point — spectacle viewing, spectacle involvement, spectacle work. That seems to be where it’s heading. Maybe that’s why museums and galleries are moving more and more toward communal spectacle experiences, and maybe that doesn’t bode well for the kind of binary intimate relationship with an object called a painting. Though, in my show, the Hammer includes installations that allow for contemplation — their showing of my books, for example.
The problem is that museums and galleries are such disciplinary spaces, with rules, rigid customs of viewing. You’re not allowed to have a cathartic relationship with art in museums.
Well, even if you’re in a museum, then just give yourself permission to cry, or cry with happiness.
One of the reasons that your work is cathartic is because it mingles emotions, sadness, joy. It reminds me of a French word, jouissance, which means a complex joy of that kind.
Actually, when I speak about my work I use the word jouissance a lot. Jouissance — it’s a joy, but a joy of life, of being full of life, full of joy. These complex emotions remind me of my favorite word of all: saudade. It’s Portuguese, and used a lot in Brazil. What’s amazing about the word saudade is that it encapsulates everything about melancholia, jouissance, the bittersweet, but it’s a weird one — saudade is about the future possibility of something happening, something that maybe will be good, and that will maybe make you happy, and you’re already getting sad about it, because you know it’s going to end. It’s about the simultaneous temporalities of emotions, and memories, and states of being.
Within these tensions, then, you also bring in a sentimentality into your work, such as in This Wholesomeness, Beloved and Despised, Continues Regardless (1990), which shows two men swooning together (though they also have targets painted on their bodies).
I don’t have a problem with sentimentality. I love that word. I grew up with my maternal family, my Colombian aunts, a matriarch. They taught me about sentimentality and the melodramatic and its cultivation and its indulgence. Through them I saw that these things are not degraded states of experience. But there is something in language that is sexist. Sentimentality and melodrama are seen as negative, because we’re looking at language through the prism of sexism and those are historically ways by which women’s emotive worlds are described.
What happens when we are able to access that experience without blockages, like sexism or homophobia?
We’re able to experience a truly complex nonessentialized human experience full of beauty and warts and flaws.
When you’re describing all of these complicated parts of life in your paintings, though, a question arises, which is, are you presenting a vision of the world that is chaotic, without a center, and possibly senseless?
I am an atheist. To me, the world is chaos, and I’m absolutely not paralyzed by that idea. There’s that old argument: how do atheists construct a sense of morality and ethics? My answer to that is, the world is chaos, but I’m not scared of it. I’m apprehensive, but I’m not going to dull down or dial down my receptivity or sensitivity to the world. I prefer to remain manageably agitated. I can accept it.
In your work, you often have tethers or lines connecting images together such as in Untitled (2003), where a key is fastened to dramatic eyes and patterns. You also insert arrows that lead around the whirlwind of specters, like in How Sweet the Day After This and That, Deep Sleep is Truly Welcomed (1988). I’ve often thought of these devices as guides — as if you, in your paintings, were acting as a kind of Virgil, or Dante, guiding us through the dark wood of the world. But now I’m wondering whether your tethers or arrows are actually just symbols that are simply one of a host of other dizzying images, and any effort to see them as providing direction is just an illusion.
No, the arrows are ways out of the dilemma that’s proposed in the painting, and they are also vehicles by which you circulate within the paintings. And the tethers, as you call them, are something that is very positive in my mind. You know, I love being emotionally and socially tethered to other human beings. That’s called civilization, that’s called cosmopolitanism.
It’s not a negative bondage.
I don’t see the tethering as at all a negative aspect in the work. I remember my mother saying that when she got married she was a virgin, which of course made sense for that generation. My mother was born in the 1920s, and she said she had been chaperoned all her life until she left home and got married and started a family. She never saw being chaperoned as stifling for herself. And I like that idea of constructing a life for myself as an adult, with all of my differences and complexities, as being chaperoned — that I’m being watched out for.
So these devices signal not only guides but also are related to love.
When you are looking at my work, or when you’re talking about my work, that’s chaperoning me and my production. I guess I’m trying to look at words that have been degraded and rehabilitate them. Being chaperoned is a caring word, a very committed word, an invested word, and so the tethering is connectivity. And then, as we said earlier, the arrows allow you to get out of what you’re experiencing, if you so choose, or allow you to circumnavigate it. They do, they offer a form of mapping.
Banner image: Acrylic and enamel on mahogany. Two panels, 128 × 96 × 2 in. (325.1 × 243.8 × 5.1 cm) overall. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Ansley I. Graham Trust. © Lari Pittman, courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles