Lari Pittman: Nuevos Caprichos
Gladstone Gallery - New York
By Craig Drennen
Lari Pittman occupies a special place in the world of contemporary painting. His exhibitions in the mid-1990s had paintings so energized by their own amphetamine crackle that they looked ready to explode out of their frames. The patterns, pilgrims, books, words (”CUM”), numbers (”69″), credit cards, caution signs and seminal splatters fanned out across yards and yards of painted surfaces. Not only did Pittman become a technical virtuoso and one of painting’s most agile thinkers, he also appeared to be a gifted improvisationalist who was having a great deal of fun.
What is striking about Pittman’s “Nuevos Caprichos” exhibition at Gladstone Gallery in New York is the gravitas one feels upon entering the space. Eight paintings, all 96-by-86 inches, line the gallery wall like tertiary-colored pallbearers. The works are mashups of Goya’s Los Caprichos prints from the 1790s and Emily Dickinson’s 19th-century poems. It’s an unexpected combination and not one that reveals its logic right away. In Capricho 8, a tiki character crowds the left side of the painting wearing a noose while Dickinson’s text ruminates on pain and time. In Capricho 1, the figure doubles into two harlequins with exposed penises, while the text concludes in the lower right with “new periods of pain.” Capricho 2 mentions pain again as the figure dangles inverted like a hanged man, coated in a random spray of stenciled letters. Flat images of dominos recur throughout the paintings as well. The gallery text offers that dominos are not only a game but also a “17th-century word for lord or master,” which does not seem helpful at all. I prefer to read the pipped squares as twin dice, dropping again and again throughout the paintings controlling outcomes by chance.
Eventually the combination of Goya’s Caprichos and Dickinson’s poetry opens a portal into Pittman’s subjectivity only hinted at through mediated images and borrowed motifs. Goya used his satiric imagination to say things in the studio that could be dangerous to say among courtiers. In Dickinson’s case, the boundary of her Amherst property was the sanctuary she needed from the world in order to carve spare verses about the world. At cloistered remove, she became one of the great doyens of bleeding out personal anxieties through careful, coded forms.
And that’s what we’re witnessing in this exhibition. Pittman has become a master of a type of painting that is above all presentational. His kaleidoscopic pop surfaces are very much aware that an audience has come to see them. But as a species of painting it is not well designed for interiority. This is where the exhibition cloaks its most compelling tensions. Pittman appears, both cumulatively and in individual works, to be engaged in some type of grieving. The paintings have the fatalist tone of an eight-page breakup letter and make any additional historical claims seem irrelevant. In the press release, the Gladstone staff writes that Pittman is “exploring the way history is constructed and categorized, illustrating how trauma is transmitted and experienced visually, historically, and culturally.” Note how the term “personally” is not permitted onto the list. Then look again at how Goya and Dickinson’s borrowed voices whisper just how bruised the work really is.
(January 16 - February 13, 2016)
Craig Drennen is an artist based in Atlanta.
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