In his new body of work, titled “From a Late Western Impaerium” (2013), Lari Pittman presents a kind of State of the Union address, articulated in his fantastical style of graphic symbols and meticulously rendered hyper-decoration. Alluding to the U.S. empire’s proclivity for psychic and physical violence, Pittman’s paintings—made of Cel-Vinyl and spray enamel and often consisting of multiple framed panels—strike a tone that is elegiac and quirkily lyrical. Over the eight panels of New National Anthem and Lamentation Duet with Birds (After Puccini), Pittman has scrawled his poetic complaint of disappointment and betrayal, appropriating the earnest, heart-wrenching lyrics of the Tosca aria “Vissi d’arte.” Despite the paintings’ high theatricality, allusions to applied arts (embroidery, carpet design) signal their homespun quality (he works with no studio assistants). His finely crafted compositions and deeply saturated palette hook us in to slow contemplative viewing.
The exhibition was commandeered by three 30-foot-wide paintings presented as “flying carpets.” As described in their titles, these works represent perspectives on a “violent,” “disturbed” and “distorted” nation. They are dominated by depictions of large circular forms: telescopic rifle sights, petri dishes and hand mirrors, respectively. These lenslike forms are surrounded by busy ornamentation, including fields of overlapping peacock feathers and sketches of ships, revolvers and architecture. Any escape Pittman’s flying carpets may proffer is provisional and compromised. The carpets are insistently flat, with no ripples or signs of movement. Trouble brews within their borders. Flying Carpet with Petri Dishes for a Disturbed Nation, for instance, features depictions of six oversize bullet holes, as though from a drive-by shooting.
Pittman has stated that these new works are interrelated and to be considered as a whole. Thus, the faces reflected in the six hand mirrors seen in Flying Carpet with Magic Mirrors for a Distorted Nation are perhaps meant to represent victims of violence. They are also inspired by portraits by Hermenegildo Bustos, a 19th-century Mexican painter of the middle class. In another work in homage to Bustos, 12 small portraits of ordinary folk are referred to in the title as “fayum” (mummy portraits); a group of paintings of egglike forms is called Twelve Reliquaries of Souls Trapped in Amber. The artist does not omit his personal experience of violence; text in one of the five panels of New Map of America refers to his 1985 near-fatal gunshot wound from a burglary. With their more abstract, quasi-architectural forms, the multi-panel works Pavilions Designed for Viewing First—World Atrocities and Staging Variations of an Opera for an Entropic Nation keep the exhibition from feeling too pointed or heavy-handed. The oblique is Pittman’s mode, as evident in the angled lines that crisscross all his works. But, overall, there is no denying the serious grappling with the ills of American culture. This series is not agitprop so much as poignant acknowledgment of our troubled, conflicted nature. In two paintings, embroidery hoops enclose petri-dish stews of brewing life; in their peripheries, large crisply striped Band-Aids dominate over smaller, sketchily drawn razor blades. Healing, not self-destruction, is the hoped-for future.