Urban Scrawl 008: Akron and Other Desert Cities
The cartographical profile of the “LA art world,” expanding outward like rippling waves from the concentration of venues in the central metropolitan area from Downtown to Santa Monica; outward across the Valley from Pasadena to Northridge; down past Long Beach to Laguna Beach and San Clemente’s OCMA; out to Claremont and Pomona, Riverside… okay is that a stretch yet? What about Santa Ana, or Santa Barbara? San Diego? Palm Desert, or Las Vegas? What about Akron, Ohio? Okay, that was a trick question, because I already know the answer. This Fall I spent a remarkable, some would even say bizarre, amount of time in the great American town of Akron, talking about Los Angeles artists — in particular, Lari Pittman. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was actually all about a single major painting by Lari Pittman residing in the permanent collection of the Akron Art Museum.
I took two trips, the first in September and the second on November, as part of the Visiting Critic Series at invitation of the University of Akron Art Department, and the purpose of which (aside from making some intriguing studio visits in the studio department) was to present a scholarly investigation into the history and import of a given work. In this case, Thankfully, I will have had learned to break glass with sound, 1999, which the museum acquired from its gallery showing in New York City that same year. In between the original research visit and the eventual presentation, I was to research the work and come back with some original insight to offer. Now this was a particularly salient turn of events, as it turns out that I have family in Akron. And not just any family, but one with deep ties and a high profile in the city. My Aunt Faye, founded the Women’s Studies Program at the University, and her son, my cousin Keith Dambrot, is currently the Head Coach of the Zips, the university’s men’s basketball team. Some of you may remember my speaking about Keith before, as well as my grandfather’s extensive background in the sport. He’s the one that discovered LeBron James in an after school basketball clinic when LeBron was like 13, and then was his coach at St. V’s for most of James’ high school career. He’s all over the Buzz Bissinger book. It’s pretty rad, actually. So it was an honor and a total head-trip to be going to Akron, and to the University, this way. The lecture made Eventful Akron, which was oddly satisfying.
Okay, back to the lecture. Although it should be mentioned I veered wildly off script after about three minutes of the 45 allotted, this is still a pretty good document I think, even in outline form — so before it’s relegated to the dustbin of art history, I thought I’d post it here for you. I’ll include my suggested further reading list, in case you want the extra credit.
LARI PITTMAN: High Notes
Outline for Shana Nys Dambrot lecture November 18, 2010, University of Akron/Akron Art Museum
Thankfully, I will have had learned to break glass with sound, 1999 I’ll be talking about Language as a compositional, descriptive, analytical, and metaphorical construct in the painting. Points touched upon include the verbiage used by fine-art critics to describe decorative arts as opposed to the operational language of decorative art itself; the sublimation of narrative impulses into a non-figurative idiom; symbolism in still life; the frenzy of simultaneous sensory input that characterizes modern existence; the Bauhaus and other people who take textiles seriously; and most importantly, the way Lari Pittman values beauty, pleasure, and pattern as expressive, quasi-narrative elements of composition, and extensions of his personal intentions.
SECTION ONE: CONTEXT
A. The painting was first shown at Barbara Gladstone’s Chelsea gallery in November 1999, close on the heels of the wildly popular LACMA survey of Pittman’s work from 1980-95, and opened in 1996. It’s worth noting, for followers of the art market, that his first solo show of new work after a major museum event would be in NYC. As an aside, I moved to LA from NYC in 1995, right as the Guggenheim, where I was working, announced their retrospective of Ross Bleckner, whose work, while very different from Pittman’s, dealt with romance and beauty in abstraction, and which some museum staff secretly called “the wallpaper paintings,” and not in a good way.
B. The critical and popular response to the 1996 LACMA survey, which covered 1980-95, was effusive. Everyone loved it. They even liked how he brought out selections from the Decorative Arts Department to include in the presentation — a dress, a still-life genre painting, a Persian manuscript, which he described as “ancestor portraits” for his own work. Many Angelenos would have been familiar with the Angelo Donghia showroom where Pittman worked for ten years (1977-87) as the studio was known all over the world for the intense luxury of its designs, especially the expressive, anything-but-vanilla textiles they produced. Pittman still works standing over a flat table. They would also have had some experience with LACMA’s extensive Latin and Asian-heavy decorative arts holdings, as it defined itself as an encyclopedic institution.
C. Reviews from NYC. Jerry Saltz said it felt like “the culmination of something rather than a jumping off point. Dealing with the decorative is not transgressive if you don’t deal with it in new ways,” and basically accused Pittman of being in a rut. Is that because he’d succeeded? In other words, is it Pittman that got stale, or did he just make his point so thoroughly that the work, despite its obviously advanced technique, was already feeling dated? Does it seem “dated” now, another decade later? Saltz pronounced 1988-96 as Pittman’s best years, in which “he had a Midas touch for decoration. The surfaces of those paintings erupted into meticulous, anti-Victorian porno passages: a cum shot splatter, layered in loving exactitude; a phallic candle dripping viscous, semenesque paint. The paintings of that period buzz with overheated Edwardian excess and crazy, compulsive fastidiousness.” Where, I can’t help but wonder, as I’m sure many of you who are artists might, was Pittman supposed to have gone from there?
D. The reaction of the Akron community to its acquisition. In May 2000, the Cleveland Free Times said, in what may be an elegant back-handed compliment for the ages, that “the painting [has] an entirely fresh appearance that seems in no way burdened by painting styles of the past,” in an article which also quoted the Akron Art Museum’s director as saying, “I think it’s quite likely that future historians may look back at the 1990s and find this painting to be one of the key works of the decade.” So, is it time to decide?
SECTION TWO: CONTENT
A. An extensive description of the contents, an itemization, inventory of the work. I’ll want people to help me look for objects in the moment, as part of what I’m looking to demonstrate will be the legibility and accessibility of the individual elements of the composition; as well as the sense of discovery inherent in excavating a Pittman image of this scale. Audience participation, looking for everything from architecture to motion marks, faces to vases, veils to vectors, and legible textual elements.
B. Text as a non-representational element of composition. For example, Buddhist and Islamic traditions with prohibitions on figuration (go into that) also developed such poignant and elegant design cultures from textiles to calligraphy to ceramics. Pittman has made extensive references to those traditions as inspirational, but this is more obvious in a general sense of Baroque exuberance than it is in specific content. “What I’ve tried to discuss — or perhaps in some cases to re-discuss as an art-historical matter — is that decoration is content and meaning, it’s not a surrogate for meaning. For example, the decorative impulse in Islamic art is also its philosophical meaning. That’s what I’m interested in in my work: decoration not being used to facilitate meaning but as meaning.”
C. Exegesis of the title, flourishes of “decorative” language used by Pittman as an element of style and composition and functionally of narrative, especially in conjunction with the objects when read as encoded symbolism. From Dutch floral still-life to Flemish altarpieces, to royal and historical portraiture, illuminated texts, and fairy tales. Pittman: “The use of the silhouettes in those very early paintings [for example] was not about discussing something specific or about autobiography or personal experience. They were simply being used as surrogates to discuss social conventions, human behavior, encoded behavior. The idea of code is always really important in the work, and surrogates can help you advance this idea. So although, visually, the work appears to have a very strong declarative voice, what is actually being advanced in the paintings is a subtext or a code. When you’re looking at the work, you’re looking at something visually declarative, but it requires a subtextual reading or a capacity or predisposition for reading code. That’s why I used the Victorian silhouettes. It was just a great conceptual armature to be able to filter social code through.”
D. The language about a thing versus the language of a thing… I’ll discuss non-art examples of power being reclaimed through language, from Mel Brooks to Rap to Sarah Palin. Pittman cites “Mary” as a West Village greeting. Many degraded cultures use this strategy to great effect.
E. Some of Pittman’s lengthier painting titles mention Victorians and Puritans, Wholesomeness, and make references to the Soul and to Faith — in referencing the spiritual, he is tapping into what may be the only more marginalized, denigrated thread in contemporary fine art than the Decorative. A personal favorite, from 1999, is “As a woman of 60, I will have had revealed the decor of my interiors.”
F. Bosch without the cautionary morality tale. Sensual appreciation as a kind of devotion. Camille Paglia’s Apollonian/ Dionysian dichotomy. Another, from way back in 1987, is called, “Where the expression of love will be encouraged (2385AD).” And the unique hand-made artist books in Orangerie, as well as the heavily worked series on paper, “Superstition, Noise, and Symbolism #1 – #10.”
SECTION THREE: COMMENTARY
A. Queer culture is less transgressive than decorative beauty or pleasure the art world worldview. Pittman talks extensively about the misogyny and bizarre hypocrisy of this construct, and relatedly, about how his paintings are “gay” only insofar as that represents a part of human experience. Why is weakness associated with the feminine? Why is appreciation of beauty considered a weakness?
B. New Yorkers always seem so mad when artists enjoy their lives, or live in California. Also why are people allowed to get lavish and indulgent in every aspect of life from fashion to decor, food to tattoos, but not when it comes to paintings. Pittman: “Institutionally, something colorful is perceived as suspect and perhaps not as serious as something that is tan and black and white.”
C. Regarding Pittman’s attempt to rehabilitate decorative arts (as when he pulled extensively from the Decorative Arts Department for the LACMA installation of his retrospective exhibition) — is this a pure love of beauty, an embrace of life after overcoming great personal challenges? Is it personal or polemical? Can it be all those things? Robert Storr in Lari Pittman, Rizzoli, 2011: “…a flighty or decorative art that succeeds in speaking the truth where seriousness cannot, and so in its apparent superficiality replaces seriousness as the vehicle for meaning and feeling.” Pittman, “It’s genuinely artificial. And that’s something. There is always substance even in the superficial and artificial.”
D. Art History. LACMA curator Howard Fox: “The idealism central to the humanist tradition in Western civilization, which aspires to transcendence through love, beauty, and art, is central to Pittman’s own art, and he extols these traditional values in a startlingly original art form with meanings that are ultimately emotional, political, and philosophical.”
SECTION FOUR: CONCLUSION
A. The Orangerie exhibition at Regen Projects: a self-curated retrospective, organized by theme, tracing certain ideas over the course of their recurrence throughout decades. According to Wikipedia, an orangery was a building “frequently found in the grounds of fashionable residences from the 17th to the 19th centuries and given a classicizing architectural form. The orangery was similar to a greenhouse or conservatory. The orangery, however, was not just a greenhouse but a symbol of prestige and wealth and a feature of the garden, in the same way as a summerhouse, folly or Grecian temple. Owners would conduct their guests there on tours of the garden to admire not only the fruits within but the architecture without. Often the orangery would contain fountains, grottos, and an area in which to entertain in inclement weather.” The self-curated survey was a kind of closure, he proved, he broke the glass, and he’s loosening up, getting out from under the bell jar of his own
style-icon status. He said of the simultaneous show of new works at Regen that they were “the most Art Historical” he’s ever done.
B. Thankfully, I will have had learned to break glass with sound
Have we learned how to do that yet? Because now that we’ve looked it all over, it seems worth remarking that the phrase, borrowed from opera, is about something (usually a woman’s voice) so high and pure that it shatters solid matter. Glass, wine glass, Merlot… There’s still evidence of a suspicion of pleasure that is the hang-over of a Eurocentric depressive models of serious modernity that has dominated an adolescent American art world. The glass that Pittman is shattering with the sound of his voice might be the glass ceiling that keeps the joyful out of positions of power.
SECTION FIVE: CITATIONS & FURTHER READING
A. Lari Pittman interviews, writings and lectures.
B. PBS Art21 2007 episode on the theme of “Romance.”
C. Excerpts from forthcoming monograph from Rizzoli, Spring 2011
D. Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice, November 30, 2007
E. Dan Tranberg in the Cleveland Free Times, May 3, 2000
F. LACMA Exhibition catalog, interviews and essays, 1996
G. Terry Myers interview in the Journal of Contemporary Art, 1997
H. Suggested further reading:
Wayne Kostenbaum: The Queen’s Throat
Dave Hickey’s Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty
Orhan Pamuk: My Name is Red
John Berger: The Shape of a Pocket
Camille Paglia: Sex, Art, and American Culture
Carl Jung: Man and His Symbols
Yeah, yeah, I know. Dave Hickey. You have to understand, I was trying to get into the nexus of weird, subversive beauty and rock music that is what I associate with, I had realized, both Pittman and Akron in entirely different ways; but I couldn’t find my copy of Invisible Dragon, so I went with my old friend, Air Guitar. I half-remembered, half-intuited there would be some insights for me in that book, some business about the real, the fake, the exuberant, the fey, and the unjust persecution of those who pursue delight and show emotion. So that’s what was swirling around in my jet-lagged brain when I arrived, and then after total immersion in four days of intensive, early-morning talks, studio visits and panels, suddenly it was my last day there. It started with a curatorial panel at the Cleveland Museum of Art (across a lawn from a Gehry business-school building), and featuring Margot Crutchfield, curator at MOCA Cleveland and wife of Kevin Concannon, the University professor who’d invited me to speak. Also on the panel, Chris Bedford, former Getty and LACMA curator, and now Chief Curator at the Wexner Center, in Columbus. Both he and Margot have devoted a significant amount of gallery space to Los Angeles artists, from Kori Newkirk to Mark Bradford, Megan Geckler, and Jorge Pardo.
I excused myself from attending the post-panel dinner, caught a lift back to Akron, and hit the Zips arena. After a long few days immersed in the LA art world of Akron, I ended up at an insane basketball game featuring buzzer-beating 3-point shots to tie, my legendarily ferocious cousin pulling a classic Dambrot maneuver, deliberately drawing a Technical by basically telling the Ref to suck it, in order to spark up the team’s defiant side, and a raucous victory in overtime. After a day that started out in a posh French bistro with an array of very savvy art folks, eating fried sauerkraut balls with the coaching staff of the Akron Zips and having the most amazing time, speaking the symbolic language of beer, game stats, and zone defenses. Yes, I said fried sauerkraut balls. Hickey also wrote an essay comparing art and basketball, to prove a point about the value of the valueless in culture. I think he’d be proud of me.