LOS ANGELES — Several years ago, artist Lari Pittman was giving a lecture to a group of students in Austin, Texas, when one of them asked, “Isn’t it weird being an artist in a big city like LA? Isn’t it dangerous?” Pittman countered, “No, it’s actually the repository of some of the deepest humanity.”
Pittman celebrates the cacophonous exuberance and hopeful potential of the urban experience in his upcoming exhibition Sparkling Cities With Egg Monuments, which opens next month at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York. The nine paintings in the exhibition depict imaginary fragmented city symphonies: soaring towers, tessellated brick facades, bridges, street lights, and abstracted roadways, joined together by dazzling fields of decorative ornament. Into these scenes, Pittman has inserted large “egg monuments” — ovoid forms that counter traditional phallic, grandiose memorials to captains of industry and war with symbols of open-ended, feminine possibility.
“These paintings are projections into the future and they’re not careless and they’re not in any way reactionary,” Pittman told Hyperallergic during a recent visit to his studio on the border of Los Feliz and Atwater Village in Northeast LA.
The centerpiece is “Sparkling City with Egg Monument” (2023), a spectacular 33-foot-long syncopated cityscape punctuated by several gleaming egg shapes. In a series of eight-by-six-and-a-half-foot canvases, the oval form takes prominence, with the city surrounding it. Smaller eggs are nestled within some of the larger ones, birthing further potentialities. A dynamic color scheme of mauve, yellow ochre, salmon, fiery orange, and various shades of green teeters on the edge of garishness while retaining coherence.
This tension between good and bad taste is a common theme for Pittman, who places in close proximity a panoply of accepted and rejected visuals modes, high and low, historical and forgotten, laying it all on the same plane and piecing it together like a jigsaw puzzle for viewers to sift through. “That is one of the most interesting things about his work,” Connie Butler, the outgoing chief curator at the Hammer Museum, told the Los Angeles Times in 2019. “His interest in the used-up and the overlooked and the ugly.”
That description could also apply to the visual terrain of Los Angeles, where Pittman has lived for most of his life, a hodgepodge landscape shaped by the dominance of the automobile and characterized by a kind of organic post-modern heterogeneity. “I absolutely love driving through the city, just observing the built environment,” he says. “If I can avoid the freeways, I always do it because there’s no stimulus. It’s dead.” His eyes light up when he describes driving along the major North-South thoroughfares of La Cienega and La Brea, or down long East-West streets like Pico or Sunset that change dramatically as they wind West from downtown towards the Pacific.
“You see the demographics of the city, the complexities revealing themselves not only through who’s walking on the street but also what the architecture looks like,” Pittman said. “It’s an incredible story that the streets tell.”
As much as Pittman loves LA, and his paintings reflect its inclusive diversity, the fantastical landscapes depicted in Sparking Cities with Egg Monuments bear little resemblance to Southern California. “It’s a romantic idea of a city,” he explained. “I could see perhaps how the work could be misunderstood as this indulgent disconnect [between reality and portrayal], but I’m not a journalist … In other words, the work is not about something, it is something.” Pittman cites the visionary artist-architects of the 18th and 19th centuries as major influences on him, like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Étienne-Louis Boullée, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who designed buildings “that would most likely not be built, but they’re still going to invent it, and I guess if there’s a thread in my work, it’s that it has always been more conjectural.”
He often incorporates text in his paintings, a parallel means of communication to the visual. Notably, in the new works, the words “please” and “thank you” are repeated on several canvases, polite salutations to the viewer.
“On a more didactic level, they’re still useful words for civil society, it’s at the core of that negotiation,” Pittman said, referring to the social contract that makes city life possible. “I do believe in large cities, and I realized they’re one of the few places my people can live.” Then he added with a gentle laugh: “And my people could be a lot of things.”
Pittman was born in LA, the son of an American father and a Colombian mother, and his childhood was split between Orange County and Colombia. In high school in California, he studied art with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, the school where progressive nun and artist Sister Corita Kent taught. Although she was not his instructor, her colleagues imbued his education with the same experimental creativity she was known for. One of the nuns, Sister Judith, would take him to an art movie house in Hollywood, where he immersed himself in the latest European films by François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Federico Fellini, and Luchino Visconti, offering glimpses of cultural realms he had yet to explore.
He enrolled in a BFA program at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1970, where a professor told the artist, who had not yet come out as gay, that his work was “too faggy, too feminine.” He transferred to the California Institute of the Arts in 1972 and found a more supportive community with mentors including professors Miriam Schapiro and Vija Celmins. Although Pittman’s work has found recognition for some time now (he recently had a retrospective at the Jumex Museum in Mexico City, preceded by one at the Hammer Museum in 2019), his was not an overnight success. The artist first emerged as a painter at a time when LA was enthralled with conceptualism. Slowly, the art world has warmed to his unabashed displays of the decorative, the feminine, the tacky, or as he says, the ungapatchka, a Yiddish word meaning overly ornate or fancy.
It is this maximalist messiness, this embrace of difference, however awkward or confounding, that links Pittman’s paintings with what he sees as the beauty of the city. His vision of the city as a site of inclusion, opportunity, and coexistence is especially notable given that he was shot twice in the stomach during a 1985 home invasion, an attack that left him with lingering medical issues.
As much as Pittman talks about the “deep humanity” of cities, he eschews any depictions of actual people in these paintings. His buildings are filled with rows of empty windows, perhaps an invitation to viewers to insert themselves into these blank spaces. Instead of the vivacious density of the crowd, the artist prefers a more intimate version of human connection — the aforementioned “please” and “thank you,” small gestures that go a long way. In the lower corners of one canvas, he offers a most personal and touching salutation to the viewer, rendered in a delicate, florid script that almost gets lost amidst the dynamic scene above: “Abrazos, Lari.”