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Western History is the story of great men, or rather, rich and powerful men, who often turn out to be not so great. Their supposedly noble exploits are well-documented throughout millennia of art history—commissioned portraits, altarpieces, and distinguished busts. But alongside, or perhaps underneath, this dominant strain of visual propaganda, there is a more nuanced and contested chronicle based on material culture, much of it created by women—objects, tools, folk art, and textiles. This is the conceit behind Lari Pittman’s latest show at Regen Projects, Portraits of Textiles & Portraits of Humans, which uses pattern and decoration to tell stories of violence, corruption, inequality, and social tumult.
Each of the large (approximately 6 × 7 foot) canvases in the show is named for a specific fabric— Crushed Linen Velvet, Damask, Glazed Chintz—and features a repeating pattern made up of floral motifs, geometric designs, and stylized objects loaded with connotations (bags of money, nooses, clamps) that form ambiguous but suggestive narratives. In Portrait of a Textile (Brocade) (all works 2018) for instance, a series of black axes float atop an angry red background of flowers, alluding to the violent overthrow of a polite social order. The diagonal composition intensifies this sense of turmoil. A tiled arrangement of cartoonish purple portraits are covered by large sickles in Portrait of a Textile (Reversible Jacquard) , alluding not only to the hope (and brutality) of proletariat Marxist revolution, but also to the dangers of the totalitarianism that followed. Portrait of a Textile (Art-Deco Toile de Jouy) contrasts golden keys with sickly black flowers—fleurs du mal as opposed to the stately fleur-de-lis—on a blue and green ground. Beneath the gilded veneer of luxury, lineage, and legacy, the dark side of inbreeding and nepotism reveals itself.
Pittman’s patterns are not perfectly repeatable. Remarkably, all are created by hand, with no computer or even preparatory sketches to aid him. That process enlivens the compositions, leaving small but noticeable discrepancies that keep our eyes moving. Pittman employs spray enamel and vinyl-based acrylic, taping and stenciling to produce a surprising range of effects that recall the revolutionary— in form and content— designs of Stepanova as much as the mid-century textiles of Alexander Girard. The seductive, high-keyed color scheme and dancing patterns mask the grim subject matter, allowing it to creep almost subliminally into our consciousness. These refined aesthetic tropes disguise a challenge to the very order they represent.
Paired with each fabric archetype is a much smaller human portrait, linked to the larger canvas through color scheme and decorative elements. Instead of specific names as with the textiles, these are identified solely by Ancient Greek words: Pathos, Ethos, Logos, Kairos, terms associated, respectively, with the rhetorical appeals of emotion, ethics, logic, and opportunity or decorum. Compared with the dynamic, monumental scenes hanging beside them, the intimacy of these images comes off as folksy and humble. All angular forms and fattened planes, these portraits resemble works by German Expressionists concerned with the alienation and isolation of the individual in modern society. Pittman’s portraits picture individuals— whether they are aristocrats or peasants—eclipsed by the larger forces depicted in the textiles. The images are captivating, but the faces are distorted, haggard, worn-down, or ghostly. In contrast to typical portraits of great men, they eschew a clear-cut narrative, raising questions as to the subject’s status, origin, or even gender, presenting a more honest, if confounding, story. They are recognizably specific but hopelessly anonymous.
In focusing on patterns and objects, Pittman’s decorative Marxism puts forth a view of history as shaped by movements and struggle rather than the exceptional feats of individuals. The empires of great men are replaced by anonymous women’s work. As opposed to the more starkly didactic quality of much revolutionary artwork, Pittman embeds his critique within the language of the ruling class—fine fabrics and conventionally attractive easel painting—making a more nuanced, complex statement. That the results can be so filled with visual pleasure is testament to Pittman’s skillful subversion.
Originally published in Carla issue 14