Visitors familiar with the exuberant, colorful, and graphically complex works of Los Angeles–based artist Lari Pittman know not to expect something conventional. His new exhibition, “Lari Pittman: Mood Books,” open at The Huntington through Feb. 20, 2017, does not disappoint.
A room in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art has been transformed by the installation of six oversized books, illustrated with 65 new paintings that display Pittman’s brilliant draftsmanship and acidic color. Pittman pairs the paintings with enigmatic titles, literary references, and cultural and historical artifacts that relate an intricate and emotional narrative.
One of the books, 12 Tableaux in which the Avant-Garde and the Folkloric Kissed, refers to early 20th-century Russian artist Natalia Goncharova, who—in the early, heady days of the Russian Revolution—bridged the gap between the folkloric and the avant-garde. “That visual hybridity made sense to me 100 years later,” says Pittman.
In another book, 10 Divinations by Emily Dickinson in Greens and Blues, Pittman used the first lines from Dickinson’s cage-rattling poems about pain and death as a starting point for some intense imagery.
Such powerful visual storytelling deserved an equally potent installation. Pittman found it by collaborating with award-winning architect Michael Maltzan, who had designed a home for Pittman and his husband, artist Roy Dowell. Pittman has admired Maltzan’s vision for a cosmopolitan Los Angeles (the architect has received accolades for his innovative downtown apartment complex, One Santa Fe, and has broken ground on his “Ribbon of Light” project to replace the Sixth Street Viaduct) and invited him to join forces for this exhibition.
The synergy that results energizes both Pittman’s paintings and Maltzan’s installation. “The fanciful mood of my books is perfumed by Michael’s sculptural and architectural activation of the space,” says Pittman.
Pittman’s books sit on Maltzan’s large custom-made pedestals, facing front to back in an undulating wave. The images in Pittman’s paintings—drawing from decorative art and design, advertising, and folk art—appear to float in and out of a viewer’s field of vision. And the books themselves, while clearly stationary, seem to ripple in the gallery space. It makes for a compelling viewing experience.
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Diana W. Thompson is senior writer for the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington.