Through exposure to violence and tragedy maximally capitalized upon by the media, the human psyche is inundated daily without reprieve. How can we escape such an overwhelming barrage of events that cannot be ignored? How do we synthesize them with our lives that must go on in their daily routine, without crumbling to the ground before the enormity of their meaning? For some it is political action, lobbying, and creating movements of peaceful demonstration; others fight violence with violence, attacking those who oppress.
Lari Pittman’s response to what he terms “empathy overload” has been to create eight large-scale paintings, whose size and plethora of visual information act as a vehicle to exorcise these experiences. Pittman himself was a victim of violent crime in July of 1985 when he was shot in his abdomen by an intruder and nearly lost his life. Since then, several of his paintings have dealt with violence as a theme, such as in Flying Carpet with a Waning Moon Over a Violent Nation; Flying Carpet with Magic Mirrors for a Distorted Nation; and Flying Carpet with Petri Dishes for a Disturbed Nation. Not a religious man, Pittman nonetheless states, “What I have learned from religious painting is the aestheticization of violence and then the possibility of aestheticizing this internalized violence that I think, as American’s, we’ve all been subjected to and fully internalized.” (Hammer Lectures, UCLA Department of Art Lectures: Lari Pittman, Nov. 6, 2013) Pittman uses this knowledge to take what is typically seen as the abject and transform or transcend it through ornamentation and overabundance.
Painted with cel vinyl (originally used for animation art) and lacquer spray on canvas over wood panel, the images appear as elaborately printed and roughly cut out shapes of collage within a collage as if scanned, then layered, then scanned again, while being shaken up like the colored glass in a kaleidoscope of non rational space. Pittman’s figures appear to be in the midst of a danse macabre that echoes the tumultuous ferocity of Picasso’s Guernica (1937). In contrast to Picasso’s neutral palette, Pittman manipulates a dualistic tension created by the use of multiple palettes, one of brighter primaries and another of muted tertiary colors.
A seasoned director of visual imagery, Pittman stages devices from his diverse lexicon not as signifiers alone but rather grammatical tropes that he uses to move the viewer through and around the composition. The surface is structured with horizontal white lines that both organize the painting into segments and guide us across the picture plane. Flowers create inconspicuous punctuations of embellishment. Dominos, whose numbers do not necessarily correspond with the title, give us a doorway through which we can enter or exit and unite the body of paintings through association. The words of Emily Dickinson unfurl in scrolls across images of crushed, hanging and dismembered bodies that are made up of block letters, crudely abstracted anatomical features, or dressed as clown-like rag dolls. All meaning is arrived at slowly and indirectly as we are forced to decipher the continuous narrative through a screen of camouflaged chaos.
Nuevos Caprichos are intended as an homage to Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos (1799) etchings and aquatints which, according to William Grime’s article Society’s Flaws and Foibles, Etched for Posterity written for the NY Times (January 1, 2015), Goya described “as ‘a collection of prints of fantasy subjects’ with a moral purpose: to ridicule ‘eccentricities and errors common to all civil society’ and ‘the concerns and vulgar deceptions allowed by custom, ignorance or personal gain.’” Though not a pure transliteration of Goya’s visual syntax Nuevos Caprichos nonetheless reiterate the primary declaration of dissent through the modes of camp illustration and decorative representation of contemporary events.
Pitman’s paintings are a series of conjectures in which factual statements become secondary to the ideas behind the fact. Nuevos Caprichos take on the function of visual mnemonics, reminding us that, as George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason (1905), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In this cyclical repetition of human error in combination with the overwhelming representation of these traumatic events in print, video and internet communication, we can be grateful that Pittman’s paintings exists as a cathartic expression of public protest.
Lari Pittman: Nuevos Caprichos
January 16 – February 13, 2016
530 West 21st Street
NY, NY 10011
Writing by Kim Power