Frill a Minute

In the telling of his stories, Dr. Seuss often got wonderfully distracted. He dosed on long riffs of nonsense, gobbledygook that sounded good even as it hid a message, strange catalogs of oh! the places you'll go and the things you will see. And what the doctor did with words, Los Angeles artist Lari Pittman does with paint. Pittman's billboard-scale broadcasts are intensely frilly, iced and coiffed and decked out in bells and whistles. And as was the case with Seuss, with Pittman it's often difficult to tell what's primary: the story or the sheer delight in embellishment.

That virtuosity is worth describing in detail. At the traveling retrospective of Pittman's work now on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum, visitors are greeted by the eight-by-21-foot masterwork A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation #1, in which various elements such as a Pinocchio-like character, a defecating anus and circus-lettered placards appear, repeat and compete for attention. They do so against a monochromatic, textured background for which Pittman has somehow persuaded paint to look like injection-molded plastic or a lacquered carving. The excrement that issues from the anus is primly filigreed with wirelike designs. A gust of white geometric forms blows through the length of the painting, one edge of which is bordered with meticulous pink flourishes. The marionette wears an intricately flowered sombrero of sorts. And that's just one painting of 25. A suspicious person might wonder if Pittman's project is only a special effects vehicle.

After all, the "plots" of Pittman's paintings are schlocky. Insistence and Resignation, for example, is a life cycle in four chapters. In the first panel, Pinocchio, with a real man-in-briefs drawn inside his torso, holds a placard reading "HEY!" In the second panel, the anus is now dumping a hangman's noose, the background color has darkened and a drooping tree appears to be in its autumn. A placard reads "F.Y.," which Pittman has said could stand for "Fuck You" or "For You." A third placard cries "S.O.S.," and poor Pinocchio is silhouetted upside down in an underground burrow. The fourth panel has a fourth anus and a R.I.P. placard. But the ending isn't unhappy, for a tiny placard at the bottom starts the cycle over with "HEY!" Pittman doesn't grant you an experience; he cartoons one for you, in a way that's often disappointingly literal despite the complexity of his images.

In the even larger painting Like You, the text, this time printed on the pages of four books, reads "Like you, I despair / Sometimes an overwhelming sadness / A deep funky-funk / But go girl! Grab it by the tail!" Though Pittman's fancy-lad style and "gay" imagery is often discussed in terms of his homosexuality, his work doesn't essentially address homosexuality. Rather, his use of a gay vernacular has a matter-of-fact quality that makes it more an issue of personality -- confident, jazzy -- than sexual politics. Pittman's here, he's queer, he used to be an interior decorator. Any questions?

Like You is a crazy quilt of dizzifying cityscape imagery, peopled with praying "church flier" hands and a caricatured Chinese man who at one point is revealed to be hermaphroditic. Like in most of Pittman's paintings, the composition is layered, with some translucent elements, but flat. It presents not a perspective or tableau, but a collage of simultaneity, a place of exchange rather than depth. It's odd to see the graphic shorthand of the images so painstakingly, sentimentally decorated. Look, Pittman says, these flocks of Clip Art arrows, these American heritage educational filmstrip silhouettes, these meager bumper sticker philosophies I offer you are important. It's as if the more he can illuminate them, the more intense work and talent he invests in them, and the more complicated he makes them, the less you can argue with them. It's Pittman's version of propaganda -- the paintings, their meanings obscured, suck you in by both awing and perplexing you.

Piecing together the meaning of these paintings is a lot like working out a fifth-grade rebus puzzle -- the time invested never quite equals the reward. In A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation #15, the central image is a she-man with breasts (which serve as the buttocks of another character), a candle flame for a bellybutton and jockey shorts. S/he wears a gold glitter crown, and the words "Cum N' Git It!" are emblazoned across her head. Hmm. This must be about sex. At the bottom of the painting are Visa and Mastercard insignias. Hmm. The commodification of sex? In the upper left corner, a clumsily painted wrinkled hand dangles a pocket watch. Umm, mortality? The time to find true, uncommodified love is running out? Or is it that the time to have meaningless, cheap sex is running out?

But once you've gotten past the penises spurting precise doses of come, the black picket fence (get it?) in a painting called An American Place, Pittman's unrelenting use of the number 69 and the numeral two to mean "to," you'll find that there's really something here. Ultimately, Pittman's work is hard not to admire. Perhaps it's because he has such faith in painting. He doesn't think it's dead -- he doesn't even think it's problematic. He thinks a painting is worth 170 square feet of high energy output, that it's still cool to find new things to do with paint. He's not going to waste your time fretting and frotting over Painting with a capital P (and by the same token he's not going to be an influential problem-solver in the medium either). He is, in a word, enthused. And his best paintings are hot, busy, urban-rhythmic. They urge you to join in, and the viewer thinks, well, okay.

Pittman is willing to be square. He's willing to be ridiculed. He makes no apologies. And he's quite willing to share the faith. His posture to his audience is like the wide-open buttocks that dominate the bottom of his painting Spiritual and Needy, with the phrase "f--me!" ornately scripted across one cheek. Perhaps if you acquiesce, it'll be your pleasure. It will certainly be his.

"Lari Pittman" will be on view through December 31 at the Contemporary Art Museum, 5216 Montrose Boulevard, 526-3129.

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Shaila Dewan