Conservator Heather Galloway visited the Tang Teaching Museum in June 2018 to finish her second round of conservation work on Lari Pittman’s Once a Noun, Now a Verb #1 (1997) before it would be displayed in the exhibition Give a damn. While completing this work, Galloway recorded a conversation with the artist.
Could you talk about the impetus for the painting Once a Noun, Now a Verb #1 and how the title relates to the work?
Looking back at 1997, we were very much involved in the culture wars in which we find ourselves once again. And I was looking at language and identity and how they might intersect. The title, Once a Noun, Now a Verb #1, discusses the possible mutability of language. We have many examples in our current language of making nouns into verbs. How does a noun become a verb or become a transitive verb? I’m always interested in that idea because it shows the mutability, porosity, and evolution of language.
At that time, I was also thinking about the mutability of my identity or the possible mutability of all identities. In those days, we wouldn’t have said queer identity; it was still called gay identity. And I was looking at how I could discuss that in the scale of a history painting. It was very much about asking, How do you look at the history of painting and try to put things into a painting that maybe historically weren’t there?
One of the beautiful things about a painting is its incredibly absorbent surface—“absorbent” in the sense that it absorbs the world around it at any given moment. In a funny way, I guess I have always been somewhat of a history painter but without necessarily being didactic. I’m interested in showing the history of the moment and all of its pathology as well as its wellness, and showing that one doesn’t trump the other; there’s a simultaneity of events, or a bittersweet nature of life where things fit side by side in complete contradiction, but they’re still part of the fabric of daily existence.
At that time, AIDS was a shadow over our culture as well as the world. I was very anxious about how one proceeds with establishing oneself as a person with complete cultural centrality, given that a lot of the prevailing discussion was about pathology as relating, incorrectly, to a specific part of the population. How do I put forth an idea of a happy, productive, fully integrated life as a gay person while at the same time, culture is overlaying blame onto my endeavors? I think those issues still occur. How do people of color in the United States feel about trying to put forth their best and be prosperous and live well and happy when a shadow is cast over them as criminals? It’s not a new idea, it’s just that I happened to be facing it at that time.
As I’ve worked across the surface, I am crossing paths with lightbulbs, with toilets and plumbing, cityscapes. There are all of these heads with sunglasses on, with tails, so I start to think about sperm. I’m not positive I’m reading that correctly. There are roses and these trails of raised green decorative elements that move up and down. Can you talk about some of this imagery?
The way you are describing it, you are describing all these nouns having the qualities of verbs. All these things that are connecting, that are crossing, that are communicating. What I tried to show in the painting was the vitality of life. The painting is, first and foremost, celebratory. The challenge for me is, how do I make a painting that is fundamentally celebratory when showing that one of the main protagonists is a toilet? I wanted the toilet not to be an abject idea, but to show that it was part of life, as are the telephone poles, the plumbing, the lightbulbs, all the mechanisms, the chandelier, the wallpaper, the cityscape. All of this is fully integrated in a kind of holistic totality. Personal desire is also completely integrated into the holistic desire of a cityscape.