“Lari Pittman”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to April 7

After my first college roommate concluded a silent conversation he’d been having with himself by attempting to strangle me, I moved in with a lapsed Lutheran upperclassman whose daily Matins consisted of two words. The ritual had its genesis in a glance at an unwisely ignored alarm clock, but as the semester wore on, the practice gelled into ritual. He would grope for his glasses, clutch his eiderdown around his chest, dive for his Camels, and utter, “Fuck me!”

Spoken spondaically, it was neither overture nor complaint, but recognition of an existential state, filled less with resignation than disgusted, respectful amazement—at the irrepressible arrival of daylight, of waking, of life itself—at what amounts to a required daily resurrection.

Whether you intend a sacred or secular observation of this weekend’s paschal celebration, the temptation is to turn to the out-of-doors to revel in nature’s gravid glory. Admittedly, it’s hard to go wrong. Fixed by the vernal equinox and the full moon, Easter is on a pagan schedule, after all. But having taken in both the cherry blossoms and the Corcoran last weekend, I’d give the edge—in festivity, in affirmation, in visual splendor—to the museum’s Lari Pittman retrospective. It sounds meager, comprising a mere 23 objects, four of them painted gourds bearing the names of virtues (Charity, Compassion, Forgiveness, Kindness), but each of the remaining paintings offers worlds. And right at the bottom of one of them, 1991-92’s Spiritual and Needy, there it is: “!F— me!”

Pittman isn’t trying to protect tender sensibilities with his bowdlerization. Not only is my roommate’s cry subsumed into the artist’s, it is ostentatiously resexualized. Emblazoned across one of a pair of stylized, splayed buttocks, it becomes the vocalization of an ocular, crimson anus, which exudes puffs of steam as an extravagantly patterned long-spouted pitcher vainly attempts to quench its ardor. The

“F—” has simply been remade according to what looks good, to what gives pleasure. So the crossbar of the letter is elongated and given a fanciful tip. Sixes and nines cavort in the corners of the picture. A thermometer registers that it’s pretty chilly, but there’s a nice fire going, even a cat nearby. Up at the top is a pair of melon-huge breasts oozing milk and blood. Between them, some sort of universal sex organ pumps out perfect, terraced, blue-and-white drops of who-knows-what until it rains down into the scene. In the center of, yes, one of Pittman’s more restrained works, florid script announces, “Sincerely, Lari.”

He’s not joking. Although the L.A. painter learned from the late-’70s Pattern and Decoration crowd, he doesn’t have to concern himself with overthrowing tired modernist orthodoxies. To Pittman, pattern and decoration are things to be revered; overload them, wallow in them, so that the overfullness of existence is granted an eloquent mimic.

Pittman handles the nature/culture issue by twisting it around, by rendering nature (as copulation, conception, and death) with outlandish artifice, and by weaving culture (as investigation, invention, and craft) into the fabric of natural cycles. Illustration and abstraction, sickness and health, salutation and sympathy, domesticity and wildness, egress and congress are all exalted. The order of some fundamental generative force is played against the horrible, beautiful chaos of the world it produces.

Such a confluence is brought into being via Pittman’s dazzling mastery of form. Only in contemporary painting’s collapsed, indefinite space could so many slippery planes of action intersect, and only a painter so fastidious and methodical could hoist them all into place, cut the wires away, and make them hang fast. As the eye slides from one plane to another, the viewer discovers how tightly the forms are arranged—to make them join just so, to give them multiple identities on the different planes—but Pittman’s sureness is such that it is virtually forbidden to try to take the picture all the way apart. In 1992’s A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation #1, a puppet’s nose, a cascade of shit, a signpost, a bar chart, the unifying pattern of terraced droplets painted to match whatever background they fill sweep the viewer seamlessly through this “cycle of life.” Never has contrivance seemed so organic.

The density and multivalence of Pittman’s imagery makes all other image-overlay art look arbitrary and impoverished. Witness Robert Rauschenberg’s six-part Soviet/American Array in the ULAE show on the same floor. Nine, 14, 19 copper plates? No problem, just count ’em up. But Pittman’s panels get you lost.

What the painter is after is merely everything. He wants a way to register multiplicity, simultaneity—the luscious, maddening fact that existence gives up so much more than we can ever take in. But let’s try anyway…Fuck me!

He’s here, he’s queer, and he’s one of the greatest painters going, but some folks still aren’t getting it. There seems to be a weird generation gap regarding Pittman’s work. Older folks (the “Jewels of the Romanovs” pamphlets they’re clutching indicating that they’re more comfortable with unideated decoration) are either befuddled or shocked. One gentleman in a blazer with pocket hanky cruises into one of the galleries, wheels around as if physically repulsed by what’s on the walls, then makes a beeline for the nearest explanatory plaque. Ricocheting from one wall text to the next, shooting occasional uncomfortable glances over his half-frame glasses at the pictures themselves, he scuttles out of the show.

Younger viewers seem to get this stuff intuitively: They go jumpy or dreamy, lingering on the bench, backtracking. “It’s amazing!” one woman whispers to a friend. A hetero couple pauses in front of Out of the Frost. The guy reaches up over his head, tossing his hand forward, inches from a radiating, lightly whitened, black splat, as if throwing fireworks into the sky.

When I first saw this stuff, I was giddily entranced, if such a thing is possible. Weeks later, I’m still humming the scenery, whistling snatches of its thousand silly songs in my head. Love is all around. And life is everywhere.CP