Los Angeles-based artist Lari Pittman presents a suite of new paintings at Lévy Gorvy Gallery, Paris, that reflect on the continued political and personal resonance of the past. Through a group of large-scale canvases to more intimate works, Pittman draws on the rich history of the decorative arts, yielding optically dazzling compositions of interlocking forms and motifs that are dense with pictorial references and symbolism.
The larger body of works in the exhibition explore the linked histories of France and the United States, taking as its central subject a 19th-century parure: an ensemble of jewels meant to be worn together. Rendered in brilliant colors over darker grounds, turquoise and coral items of jewelry are framed by rope garlands and beset by creatures—caterpillars, moths, flies, rats, and ravens—that recall the iconography of Baroque still lifes.
Similarly, a group of smaller canvases depict elaborately embellished gourds alongside totemistic animal presences. Pittman’s compositions thus resonate with the vanitas tradition, in which opulent symbols of wealth and beauty are represented alongside animals that devour and destroy, in allegories of the fleeting nature of life and its material seductions.
The ornate surfaces of the works in Dioramas are unified by Pittman’s imposition of painted rectilinear bars on the lower half of each painting, emphasizing their flatness and creating a visual and conceptual barrier between the canvases and the viewer’s space.
With these railings, Pittman conspicuously invokes the titular notion of a diorama—a conceit long used by museums to display historical artifacts in vignettes that suggest preconceived narratives. Like the tableaux of such dioramas, Pittman’s paintings establish a formal relationship with the viewer, arranging and reconstituting historical allusions and fragments for the present day.
The jewelry, for example, is inscribed with dates of important milestones in the national histories of the United States and France: 1776, 1789, 1863, 1871, and 1944. These years mark the Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Paris Commune, and the Liberation of Paris—moments of both violence and liberation. E
schewing literal illustration of these landmark political events in favor of decorative analogs comprised of gorgeous fragments, Pittman’s dioramas operate as contemporary history paintings, reflecting on the opulence and traumas of the past in order to invite contemplation on the complex opportunities and risks of the present day.
Lari Pittman // “Lari Pittman: Dioramas” // Lévy Gorvy Gallery // Paris, France // On show through 31 July 2021 // Image: Installation view of the exhibition, courtesy Lévy Gorvy Paris //
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