Conversation | Lari Pittman & Mark Godfrey - Lévy Gorvy

Conversation | Lari Pittman & Mark Godfrey

Mark Godfrey: It’s a great pleasure to talk to you about this new body of work for your first ever exhibition in Paris. I wanted to start by asking whether this series was underway in the studio prior to the invitation to exhibit or if it was a response to that invitation.

Lari Pittman: The work was already very much in progress before the invitation. I started close to six months ago, around October 2020, and then the invitation came in December. I had already envisioned the imagery and started working on some of the jewelry parures and the backgrounds. It struck me how nineteenth-century Paris-bound the work looks. I felt that they didn’t seem like paintings that would come out of Los Angeles but rather looked like, to use the French term, ancien régime.

Mark Godfrey: This is obviously a coherent body of work—called Dioramas—but there are two distinct groups within the show and two different shapes of canvas. How does one body of work stop and another begin? For instance, in the last couple of years there was a series that was shown at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, Portraits of Textiles & Portraits of Humans (2018), and another series shown at Lehmann Maupin in New York, Found Buried (2020). Is this the subsequent series?

Lari Pittman: No, in September I had a solo exhibition at Gerhardsen Gerner in Oslo titled Iris Shots: Opening and Closing, in which I addressed a dystopic landscape as viewed through the cinematic technique of the “iris shot.”

MG: But each group of works is specific, it’s not like you’re an artist who may be painting twenty paintings a year, and some will go into one show and others will go into another. How did the idea for this particular group of works come about?

LP: I’ve always loved Rossellini’s film The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966). The centerpiece of the consolidation of the king’s power is this incredibly long banquet scene where the whole court is simply watching Louis eat. I must have been eighteen or nineteen years old when I watched the movie, and I was struck by this stark, sequenced analog time that was being presented. It almost felt like a structuralist film, fixated on the banquet table as if it were a diorama. Fast-forwarding to now, and to what’s changed for me personally and for all of us, is a newly profound understanding of space and time because of COVID. Something I’ve been acutely aware of is how time has stretched out. It’s more languorous, less episodic. It’s endless, not tethered or bound on either end of morning and night. I thought early on, I wonder what nineteenth-century time would feel like—that almost eternal continuum of boredom.

MG: In terms of the specific compositions of the first, larger Diorama paintings [Diorama 1Diorama 5], I want to start by pointing toward the barriers at the bottom of the canvas. Are they supposed to remind one of a cordon in a museum, where one would see a diorama? They bring into the paintings a modern square grid that’s different from the grids painted in the background. George Baker recently wrote about the grids in your work as disparate from the square grids that we know from Piet Mondrian or Agnes Martin. But the barriers here are particularly square. How did you arrive at these forms?

LP: You’re spot on in recognizing the contemporaneity of that barrier. It isn’t turned wood or metal filigree. It indicates to the viewer that we’re looking back in time. Ostensibly, the viewer would stand from this vantage to look at a diorama. I thought a lot about the scale of the viewer. Let’s say a normal railing height is around thirty inches, and say a six-foot-tall person were standing in front of it, then what they are experiencing is still much larger than they are. Even if they are looking at a ring, which would be tiny.

MG: So there’s something very real about the scale of these paintings. People in Paris will be able to stand in front of them and imagine standing behind a barrier looking into these scenes. But there’s also something fictitious, which is the hugeness of the jewelry and these strange animals all around them. This is really interesting—the fiction versus the real scale. Where did the idea of working with this set of jewels come from?

LP: It goes back to my education at CalArts. When I started the program, I understood that the history of art wasn’t just within the modernist timeline. The applied arts could give as deft a social portrait as the agreed upon high arts. I’ve always studied textiles, jewelry, ceramics, and interior decoration. I’ve found that there’s something both beautiful and socially violent about jewelry.

MG: Where’s the violence? Do you mean in the sense of who gets to wear things related to the struggles and the privileges of class? Or is it something in the actual design?

LP: I would phrase it as a type of social petulance and implied intimidation. The fact that we would even make such an item in culture, it’s petulant, in a way, and capricious. But to me it’s an unresolvable dilemma.

MG: Was it thinking about the violence associated with jewelry that led you to paint the animals into the scene? Or was it always the idea that the two would come together?

LP: At the beginning, I was thinking about what type of diorama I would paint, and I thought of vanitas paintings, which brought together representations of something very alive and fulgent, and then insects or decay. Instead of painting fruit or vegetables or flowers, I decided that I wanted to pair the insects with something inanimate. Later, I dated the jewelry, because I wanted a dialogue, as a sidebar, between America and France. So one necklace is dated 1863, marking Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and then another is 1871, referencing the Paris Commune. The ring is dated 1776, the year of the United States Declaration of Independence, at the very bottom. Returning to the inherent desire and violence of the jewelry, I wanted to recall moments of deep social violence and trauma.

MG: But there are moments of optimism as well as violence.

LP: All of those dates are bittersweet in that their violence and optimism are inextricably linked. This pair of earrings is dated 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution.

MG: Would you say that 2020 was an appropriate moment to make a series of paintings with dates that convey a sense of violence and optimism?

LP: Absolutely. However, I’m interested in politics and social observation, but it’s never directly addressed in my art. These things are filtered and obtuse. I could point at so many moments in 2020, but I shy away from topicality. There’s a lot of work being made right now that is pronounced as political, but in reality, with all respect, it’s still just topical. It is very hard to intentionally make political art, but there are many moments in art history where works have had the seismic power to make us rethink politics.

MG: There is lettering and text in the paintings—Q is in the center of one earring in Diorama 2, N is in the center of another—are these elements pointing outward in the same way as the dates? Do they have a reference?

LP: No, it’s ornamentation. The jewels that comprise the parure are either turquoise or coral set in gold. Some have monograms, which are in the vein of automatic writing and all are dated in the tradition of mourning jewelry. Go back to the raven in Diorama 1. This is the only diorama where I jump into the twentieth century, simply because it is dated 1944 on the diadem, alluding to the liberation of Paris in World War II.

MG: But around them, there are Zs. Does this lettering refer to anything particular in the way that 1944 does?

LP: No, I don’t mean to sound evasive, but in reality I like the “look of language” and the “evidence of language” as much as I like actual language and content. Perhaps this malleability is at the core of the queerness of my work.

MG: Often when I look at your paintings, I feel a tension between the act of looking, at color, at pattern, at repetition, and then the act of interpreting and decoding. I’m not always sure which elements in the painting demand to be interpreted because they have an external reference, and which seem to have an external reference but don’t. It seems that you’re often interested in the two kinds of work that the viewer might be offered to do—looking and decoding—and how they’re sometimes compatible and sometimes not.

LP: I can see that, but within the centrality of who I am, looking and decoding are not an either or but naturally and simultaneously occur. Then there is always a tension between looking at a painting and looking for something. But there is also my desire as an artist to be generous with the work, in the sense that it can be accessed on all sorts of levels without making fun of any chosen entry point. I’m very proud of a popular read of the work, and it’s not at the expense of any other level of privy or education. I want to be generous to an audience who wants to dig deeper, but I hope the viewer gets a full experience regardless. If I were to give a signal that there was an actual location of meaning, or an arrival time of meaning in the experience of the paintings, that might indicate that I’m a pedagogical painter, which I’m not. The viewer has to deal with an anxiety that attends simultaneously looking at and looking for something in the work.

MG: This is really important, that the works don’t suggest there’s a hierarchy between the viewer who enjoys the colors, the patterns, the way it’s painted, and the viewer who considers the references of the dates or the type of jewelry. One element that crops up in these paintings that we haven’t addressed yet is the egg. Of course, an egg is a symbol that’s been used often by different artists, but does it mean something particular for you?

LP: This goes back to your deft analysis of the viewing railing as being contemporary; periodically I’m interested in the moment during the process of observation when the viewer realizes the artifice of the event. This fiction isn’t a betrayal. One of the things that painting has always done so beautifully, especially Western European painting, religious painting, is that it has refined the idea of lying. Religious European painting lies expertly. If I were to say that the contemporaneity of the railing lies in its status as a non sequitur, than the egg is even more so, because it doesn’t report to the interior logic of what’s happening in the painting. It’s a gratuitous intruder in the painting. In other words, it isn’t a symbol, but it says, “OK, here’s an egg. Get over it.” Like, get over it, you know? I love this device in Surrealism, a non sequitur moment that borders on the gratuitous. Take Tomma Abts’s work, for example, which I appreciate very much, there’s this space that has absolutely no oxygen. Her paintings are “autistic,” and I am not using this word pejoratively; I mean to reference a misunderstanding and misconnection between acute interiority and receptiveness that is not always understood by other cognitive realities. For me, the non sequitur is a way of breaking a spell, which is precisely what Abts doesn’t do. She likes that you’re locked into the painting and you can’t get out.

MG: Does that mean that the eggs came in toward the end?

LP: At the very end. I always want to offer the viewer a way out of the experience of the painting, or a way out of any micromanaged or manneristic look of the painting. By “a way out” I mean a possibility of breathing fresh air, unencumbered by my intentions.

MG: That’s fantastic. I want to move on to the other group of smaller works [Diorama 6Diorama 14]. One of the things that interests me is that you didn’t change the title across the series, but they’re two very distinct groups of work. Was there a moment where you were going to title them differently? Or were they always all Dioramas?

LP: Actually, I made these before I made the larger paintings. Instead of jewelry, the central protagonists here are these desiccated, painted gourds. The railing also came very early. These paintings prompted the making of the large Dioramas.

MG: The gourd is an element that’s been in your work since the ’80s. What does it mean to you and how have you used it differently over the years?

LP: My retrospective at the Hammer Museum (2019–2020) made me review what I’ve done and consider what could be readdressed, or what ideas could be given CPR. You’re right, the gourds have been there for a very long time. I think it’s clear that they are a surrogate for the human body. There’s a concurrent dryness and fulgence in the desiccated gourd. There’s a wonderful song, “La vida no vale nada,” which means life is worth nothing. It’s a ranchera song, like a Mexican country western song, and the lyrics basically say the minute you’re born you start dying. I love that, it’s a romantic idea. It’s how I’ve always looked at the gourd. Somehow it reflects a simultaneity that I like about life experience anyway. I’m not a Protestant.

MG: Did any of your interest in painting gourds again in 2020 connect to a sense of vulnerability in the context of the pandemic?

LP: Every culture has painted gourds; not industrialized nations, so it’s weird that, as a person living in a highly industrialized nation, I would be painting gourds. But agrarian cultures have always painted them, and implied in the act of painting on or decorating a gourd is the notion of recuperation or remediation. So, you’re right, it is related to the panic that we’ve all internalized during the pandemic. Painting the surface of the painting itself, or painting the jewelry, or articulating the surface of the gourd—these are ameliorative, or recuperative activities. The beauty here is the enhancement of the quotidian.

MG: The other elements in these paintings seem to come from cultures outside Los Angeles as well—for instance, this creature at the bottom of Diorama 6. Do these speak to forms of museological activity other than the diorama?

LP: If there’s a museum in the world that I absolutely love it’s the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. It’s filled with dioramas. Some of my favorite painters are from the Surrealist female diaspora, from Europe and the Americas—Remedios Varo, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, and Leonora Carrington. I look at folkloric practices, but I’ve also internalized a type of cultural magical realism, which is natural to how I grew up, bicultural, between the US and Latin America. My first language is Spanish. I was speaking once to Paolo Colombo, an artist and curator who has lived and worked in Italy, Greece, and Turkey. He said, “You know, Lari, when I look at your work, a way that I can understand it is actually superimposing Spanish over it, not English.” That was an amazing observation. Romance languages allow for higher decibels of romantic talk and hyperbole in daily conversation. If one is speaking in English and the language gets too poetic, or too metaphorical, it seems a little suspect, and that’s built into the language. Maybe this is true of all my paintings—if you’re only thinking in English, it appears that I take great leaps of logic in the work. But if you have a grasp of Romance languages or Latino cultures, these leaps won’t seem so drastic.

MG: I wonder whether it’s to do with the actual sound of Spanish and the speed at which people talk. Maybe this is a ridiculous thing to say, but each word can flow into another so that you can say a lot more, a lot more quickly. It’s interesting to consider what would be the language to think through these paintings, and how the logic of English might not be as appropriate or as interesting as that of Spanish.

LP: Well, if we think about it, Calvinist culture could never produce magical realism in literature or art.

MG: Have you found, given the circuits in which your work has been distributed—through the galleries or museums in North America in particular—that those readings, or that a Latino perspective on your work has been offered enough? The different perspectives that Connie Butler, Helen Molesworth, and George Baker bring to bear on your work in the Hammer catalogue are so fascinating, but what you’ve just said doesn’t seem to be reflected in the way they have theorized your practice.

LP: I was having a conversation with Lynne Cooke about her exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art [National Gallery of Art, 2018], and she asked me the weirdest question. She asked, “Do you think that in certain parts of the art world people think you’re an autodidact? That you’re a self-taught artist?” I loved that question. I’ve always been aware of that as well. It could be why—and I don’t mean to complain—why the work is viewed as a curiosity within the art world. But then if we think about that specific art world, its language is English and its power structures are American, Anglo-Saxon, Western European. As I get older it doesn’t really bother me, but it did when I was younger.

MG: I want to ask about the overall tone of these paintings. I’ve seen paintings of yours in the past which have a huge cacophony of color and massively different tones across varying surfaces. Certainly, in the smaller of the Dioramapaintings there’s a consistent mood or tone across the whole surface. Were you conscious of that, and is it important to how they make meaning for you, or for the viewer?

LP: I wanted to locate the paintings atmospherically in twilight. To me, tonality is important because it helps me give a climatic sensibility to the work. I think that’s why the palettes here are so repressed, or so brought down in tonality. In poetry, or when you come home from a day, twilight is a space filled with both relief and a certain anxiety or anticipation of the night. It’s a time register that I’d been feeling while being housebound for the last year. I’ve been locked in that perpetual twilight. It’s also a beautiful moment—an in-between moment of feelings, temperatures, and registers of emotion.

MG: It’s very evocative to think about working conditions like this. But in many ways, your working conditions in the last year haven’t changed. You tend to work without assistants when you’re making the paintings. But nonetheless, it must have been different knowing you couldn’t have other people in the studio.

LP: That’s true. The only other people that came to look at these works were my good friends Silke Otto-Knapp and Mimi Lauter, as well as two of my graduate students. As for not having assistants, I have never done prêt-à-porter.

MG: When I saw your retrospective at the Hammer, I was struck by the surprising textures and surfaces of the ’80s paintings. With the idea of texture in mind, and thinking through what we’re doing right now, which is looking at our screens and talking about these paintings over Zoom, what do you think is missing from how we think about these paintings by virtue of the fact we’re not looking at them in the flesh?

LP: I think something more visceral happens—you feel that you’ve shrunk in front of the physical paintings. Somehow, the incredible detail in the paintings isn’t a vehicle for the miniaturization of the objects depicted, but rather it might make the viewer feel miniaturized.  Another thing that is lost here is not being able to access the climate conditions or the scent of the paintings.

MG: So, what we’re missing in this experience of looking at the paintings online isn’t so much their texture as the effect of scale that we discussed—the scale of the barrier in relation to the height of the painting and that of the viewer. What we probably can’t get to is the relation of the detail to the imaginative experience of standing in front of the paintings.

LP: Or maybe even that the level of detail could also prompt the viewer to understand my philosophical view of the world. I am proposing that my devotion to the surface of the work is not in any way a religious conviction, but rather an attempt to redirect this devotion to the accuracy and succinct destination of my atheism.

MG: In her catalogue essay, Connie Butler wrote, “Pittman has frequently declared his personal distaste for the aesthetics of his own paintings. In fact, he has said he’s often appalled by them.” This doesn’t seem to apply to your view on these particular paintings—maybe to some of the busy paintings of the early ’90s, but not necessarily to the new works.

LP: You’re onto something, Mark. I think it’s because I made them in total isolation, and so I wasn’t able to distance myself, literally, from the making or thinking of the work. This is one of the few times I think the works are beautiful. Typically, the taste that the paintings advance isn’t my own taste. Maybe that’s where I don’t always understand painting. I have no essentialized connection to painting or its aesthetics, unless I think about it consciously. Making these paintings in isolation made me confront that relationship much more, because I couldn’t distance myself as much as I’ve been able to in the more normative past.

MG: I’ve always been jealous of Los Angeles in terms of the amazing communities of artists there and the high level of discourse around painting in particular—even looking back to the moment when you were training at CalArts, and making paintings was seen as problematic but something that young painters could define themselves against. Now, people like Silke Otto-Knapp occupy important positions and pedagogical roles at UCLA, where you’ve also taught. How has this community of painters, and the production of discourse around painting, sustained you in recent years?

LP: It sustained me in the sense that I could never contextualize my work within my own generation. My generation at CalArts was the Pictures Generation, which was intrinsically heteronormative and white. But I was able to find my voice around the ethos of the Feminist Art Program at that time. I could finally contextualize my practice, after the economic collapse of ’89 through the early ’90s, within a generation of much younger women artists who were saying “Let’s see if we can make paintings.” The best paintings right now are done by women, and it has been that way since the ’90s. That’s my context. To this day—an artist that I absolutely love, but I don’t know how I could ever make her work, is Jutta Koether. It is the most uningratiating work, but I absolutely love it. Also Tomma Abts, Laura Owens, Toba Khedoori, Monica Majoli, Mimi Lauter, Dana Schutz, Allison Miller, and Charline von Heyl.

MG: It was interesting to see what comparisons were made in your Hammer catalogue. Elizabeth Murray was there, she was obviously someone who was present for you when you were much younger, but it’s interesting for me to think through the dialogue you have with these amazing generations of painters as well.

LP: I don’t want to sound decadent, but there’s a kind of typology—for example, with Charline, I like her work very much because it seems like a classical moment of postmodernism. She does it better than anybody else. You’re really aware of the suturing of ideas and when something stops and starts, you know? It’s elegant, classical postmodernist painting. My interest in the work of many of the artists I mentioned is their ideological position and strength and not intrinsically what the work looks like.

MG: Are you going to go to Paris, or is that impossible? What is the one museum in Paris you are hoping to visit?

LP: Although I’m fully vaccinated it’s still uncertain whether or not I’ll be able to go to Paris for the opening on April 10. But hopefully things will ease up and I’ll be able to go toward the end of the exhibition. One of my favorite museums is the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and I always go to the Musée d’Orsay. I think of those two museums because they have historical work that isn’t available anywhere else. I want to be in Paris when the museums are finally open. I always have to physically see paintings in order to continue making paintings.

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