Installation view, ‘Mernet Larsen: Things People Do’ at James Cohan Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Mernet Larsen claims an unlikely pair of influences: 15th-century Italian painting and the austere abstractions of the Russian modernist El Lissitzky (1890–1941). But linger a while in front of her paintings, with their blocked-in figures and wildly inverted perspectival lines, and both influences will ring true. There’s a little bit of Sassetta, and a lot of Lissitzky, in the way that her flattened figures, expanded by a keen sense of color, drive through tense, abstracted environments. Even the yardstick-proportioned bodies and zigzag spaces attain a peculiar authority. In her paintings currently on view at James Cohan Gallery, Larsen charges a bizarre vision of modern life with the dynamics of traditional painting.

LARSEN_Reading in Bed

Mernet Larsen, “Reading in Bed” (2015), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 60 x 38 1/4 in (image courtesy James Cohan Gallery) (click to enlarge)

The down-home title of the exhibition, Things People Do, is a bit of a tease. Absorbing these bizarre images, in which wildly distended Legoland figures teeter over a cliff and radiate like spokes about a dinner table, one wonders: who but a hallucinating draftsman would have people do these things? Beneath the outlandish stylizations, though, lurk some thoroughly human moments. One figure roasts a marshmallow over a campfire. A couple converses at a snack-bar table. Another pair lounges on a bed. All these events are grounded in pressures of color, so that in this last painting, “Reading in Bed” (2015), the livid pink of nightgown and elusive gray-green of floor shift tangibly into their shadowed states: a full-blooded coral hue and an earthy green. The schematic figures become practically fleshy in their transformation under light. Meanwhile, the racing perspectival lines, defying any conventional notion of space but intensifying the pictorial one, measure out intense intervals — headboard-pillow-bedspread-floor — from canvas top to bottom.

Mernet Larsen, Frontier (2015), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 64 x 52 1/2 in

Mernet Larsen, Frontier (2015), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 64 x 52 1/2 in (image courtesy James Cohan Gallery) (click to enlarge)

Oddly enough, a certain innocence presides over such paintings. Larsen makes no attempt to hide their internal mechanics: the prismatic reduction of forms, the sweeping arcs tethered by radial lines, the thrusting diagonals and pacing parallels. All would become mere textbook devices in lesser hands, but the mutable energy of Larsen’s color makes them convincing, inviting us into the conversation of character-forms. The composition of “Frontier” (2015) revolves, literally, about the concept of arcs bracketing a trio of figures/vectors. But the rhythmic energy of the curves — sweeping broadly above one figure, coiling beneath and unloosing the lifted arms of the second, and then barely containing the third — exceeds mere concept; the towering and tottering figures palpably tower and totter. At the same time, tiny articulations — like the shadows at the figures’ feet — pin down entire expanses of color, amplifying the sense of scale. Like many of the paintings here, it feels remarkably complete: a unique mixture of faithful observation, pressured distortion, and fantastical play.

Among several works on paper in the gallery’s back space, the straitened figure with outstretched arms in “Skier” (2013) doubles eerily as ski lift tower. The much earlier painting “Study for Cubism” (2004), featuring two figures with less exaggerated proportions, seems to catch the artist at a crossroads, poised to leap from naturalism to distortion.

Installation view, 'Mernet Larsen: Things People Do' at James Cohan Gallery

Installation view, ‘Mernet Larsen: Things People Do’ at James Cohan Gallery

Now and then, an insistent detail adds a narrational twist to a painting. The reading matter of the figure in bed, for instance, turns out to be War and Peace. In another painting, a woman greets a bicyclist with a lifted chainsaw. Such mini-plots seem diversionary. Cartoonish as these paintings may be stylistically, they pursue a painter’s language rather than an illustrator’s effects, an authenticity of form rather than a beguilement of style and message. What could you possibly add to their vital internal conversations, at once so wayward and so self-possessed?

Mernet Larsen: Things People Do continues at James Cohan Gallery (291 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 21.

John Goodrich paints, teaches, and writes about art in the New York City area. Formerly a contributing writer for The New York Sun and Review magazine, he currently writes for artcritical and CityArts.