Lari Pittman is a painter, but don’t think about asking him what he intends to paint.
A UCLA professor of painting and drawing, Pittman, who has shown his work internationally and is featured in the permanent collections of modern art museums around the world, delivered a lecture to an audience of about 50 undergraduates and School of Art students on Monday night. The abstract painter, who is known for referencing shocking media and subject matters in his works, discussed individual paintings while incorporating elements of his personal history in the commentary. Quirky music, from “Stereo Love” to Moroccan soul, accompanied a survey of Pittman’s work preceding his analysis.
Pittman’s paintings are similar to huge collages made of a wide variety of colors, commercial symbols like Visa and MasterCard logos, and distorted images. Many of them take objects traditionally associated with certain practices or beliefs and apply them to the canvas. One such work shows a gynecological speculum, and includes many abstract representations of female sexual anatomy, but is not meant to be sexualized or desired, Pittman explained.
“This painting isn’t about the sexual anatomy of woman,” said Pittman. “It’s about applying an instrument to painting and seeing what images you bring out.”
Pittman went on to explain that he likes focusing on female anatomy in order to connect to the birth process. This use of objects to represent processes and emotions extends throughout his work, Pittman said.
Moreover, Pittman said he enjoys working with opposites in perception.
“I love taking blood and ejaculate and making it simultaneously grotesque and beautiful,” Pittman said.
But this doesn’t mean Pittman makes art with a specific intention or definition — he still dislikes defining what a work is about, he explained, calling the definitional process, “puritan, almost Calvinist.”
Pittman went on to relate the divide between creating art and speaking about art to what he perceives as a change in the art world.
“The collapse of certain types of language has made me rethink my pedagogy and how young artists are being trained,” Pittman said.
The majority of Pittman’s recent works are untitled to relate to this lack of commitment to specific interpretations of the works, Pittman said. A painting may include the images of several different objects, but the viewer is left to determine what the relationships between these images imply.
Still, the impact of Pittman’s painting has been profound for his audience.
“[Pittman’s work is] a flighty and decorative art that succeeds in speaking the truth where seriousness is unable to,” said Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, in his introductory statement.
Moreover, some audience members who have always possessed an appreciation for both Pittman’s work and philosophy came to the talk to discover more about the artist.
William Villalongo, a lecturer at the art school, has been a fan of Pittman’s art for many years, but feels a new understanding of his work after Monday’s program.
“I appreciated hearing about the secular spirituality of Lari’s work,” Villalongo said. “I never understood how he felt about religion before tonight.”
Pittman, who has his MFA and BFA from the California Institute of the Arts, has received three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A comprehensive monograph about Pittman’s life and work will be released this spring.