Daily toil of his work

Los Angeles Times - - Arts & Architecture - David Pagel

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 to 2010.

It’s an awe­some, jaw­drop­ping sur­vey that in­cludes about 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. 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 to ’ 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.

Re­gen Projects, 633 N. Al­mont Drive and Re­gen

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

www.re­gen­pro­jects.com.

Fredrik Nilsen

LARI PITTMAN: An un­ti­tled work from this year shows the artist’s use of vi­brant com­bi­na­tions.

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