ArtWeekend

Mernet Larsen Welcomes You to the Vortex

Larsen’s dry, matter-of-fact humor and eye for the absurd are everywhere in her paintings.

Mernet Larsen, “Drawing Hands” (2017), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 67 1/2 x 36 1/4 inches (all images courtesy James Cohan Gallery)

In the monograph Mernet Larsen (2013), which was the first on this artist, I wrote the following passage:

In addition to Russian Constructivism, Larsen brings together Chinese and Japanese art and philosophy, Japanese Bunraku puppet theater, Udaipur palace paintings, 15th-century Italian painting, the heads of Alexej von Jawlensky, and the science of the perspectival organization of space. It’s a heady, unlikely brew that few artists are capable of synthesizing into a single, supple approach.

The result of bringing these disparate strands together is an unmistakable view of the everyday world that Larson informs with rigorous perspectival systems and a geometric vocabulary.

Mernet Larsen, “Seminar” (2011), acrylic on canvas, 59 x 40 inches

There are a handful of constants in Larsen’s work. The first is the use of reverse perspective, in which things that are farther away appear larger than things that are closer. The second is that all the figures are transformed into geometric forms, so that every part of the body is treated as a distinct entity, each seemingly carved from wood. Heads are depicted as block-like forms with faces depicted on one side, while noses are rendered as sharp triangular planes jutting out from the face. The third is that Larsen pictorially manipulates the body as if it were a sectioned puppet, with every part capable of performing action that ostensibly conforms to its geometric structure. Within this schema, when a back is curved, the figure’s posture becomes extraordinary in its ordinariness. Working under these extreme self-imposed restraints, Larsen focuses attention on a wide range of banal human gestures.

Despite all the limitations the artist has set up for herself, she attains a surprising amount of expressive possibilities in her scrutiny of mundane situations, as anyone going to her recent exhibition Mernet Larsen: Situation Rooms at James Cohan (April 19 – June 16, 2018) will quickly discover. The exhibition includes eight paintings, including the first three she made based on faculty meetings. In the gallery press release, she is cited as saying:

I have always wanted to do a painting of an art department faculty meeting – having spent 35 years of my life attending them.

Larsen’s dry, matter-of-fact humor is detectable everywhere in her paintings, along an eye for the absurd, not to mention panic, stoicism, boredom, anger, annoyance, and pettiness — often in the same composition. By using an inverted perspective, which can literally everything we are seeing upside down, she is able to get at issues of conformity, hierarchy, and power relationships with straight-faced glee.

Mernet Larsen, “Situation Room (Scissors, Rock, Paper)” (2018), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 62 1/2 x 51 1/2 inches

The exhibition’s title may have come from the fact that Larsen spent many years teaching in Florida. The White House Situation Room was created in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy shortly after the catastrophic failure of Bay of Pigs invasion, which was launched by Miami-based Cuban exiles. The current Situation Room, in the basement of the West Wing, is in operation 24/7, manned by officials constantly checking world events.

In “Situation Room (Scissors, Rocks, Paper)” (2018), Larsen extends the premise of reverse perspective into a territory that has not been explored by anyone else in contemporary art. The row of figures on one side of the table is uniformly upright and facing in one direction, while their forearms and hands rest on the table at an opposing angle. The row of figures on the other side of the long, narrow conference table is upside down, their faces and hands pointed straight ahead. No one is looking at anyone else. Independent of their heads, the two sets of hands on opposite sides of the table are engaged in playing the ancient child’s game in the painting’s title.

Mernet Larsen, “Cabinet Meeting” (2017), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 61 x 65 1/4 inches

Punctuated by stars, the brownish-magenta wall-to-wall carpet of “Cabinet Meeting” (2017) extends at a diagonal from the top right corner toward the lower left, but stops short of touching the edges of the canvas, diminishing in size as well as tilting away from the picture plane as it travels downward. The powerful thrust of the diagonal carpet infuses the room with a vertiginous perspective. The floor is literally and figuratively dropping away from us.

Larsen’s genius merges perspectival rules with meaningful content, from the stiff poses of the figures to the disorienting upside-down room. This is a world where the normal has gone off the rails, where everything is awry. Starting with the largest figure, who is seated at the head of the elongated oval table, each black-clad man or woman shrinks in size until our attention reaches the far end of the table, where the smallest person in the room — the figure everyone’s face is turned toward — sits upside down.

Look at the hands of the larger figures — clenched fists, hands clasping the table’s edge, one hand resting on top of the other, like a pair of gray slippers — and you will get an idea of how Larsen is able to suggest so much through the attention she pays to an individual’s pose. The discomfort of everyone in the room is palpable, starting with the larger figures but also including the photographers standing against one wall.

Mernet Larsen, “Committee” (2007), acrylic, mixed media on canvas, 36 x 68 inches

Larsen’s ability to evoke an interior emotional state — which is often one of discomfort — is evident in “Committee” (2007), where all five individuals on the far side of the sharp triangular conference table are depicted in variations of intense boredom — starting with the largest figure, his elbows on the table and fingers interlaced in front of his forward-leaning head and body, to the one two seats away (and markedly diminished in size) leaning away from the table, to the smallest figure in the row, seated uncomfortably in his chair, wedged into the lower left corner of the canvas. And yet, as sharp as this view is, it is full of sympathy too.

By stretching reverse perspective into fresh territory, Larsen has revived a disregarded organizational device into something absolutely contemporary. Doesn’t this qualify as an innovation in a time when everything has already been done? Isn’t it instructive to realize that she developed this way of painting around the time she turned 60, long after one is expected to be trying something new, let alone tackling ever more complicated compositions with such undeniable confidence?

This is what makes Larsen a singular artist: she can be simultaneously critical, satirical, and tender towards figures who, frozen inside their stiff bodies, seem utterly isolated from themselves and each other. Perhaps she recognizes that isolation because, on her journey to this moment, she has felt at times utterly alone in her quest to do something new and astonishing.

Mernet Larsen: Situation Rooms continues at James Cohan Gallery (533 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 16.

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