It is one of those impossible questions that each artist answers differently. How much can you put in? And, of course, the obverse, how much can you leave out?
Mark Rothko wanted to make a painting that was naked, a work stripped down to its essentials. Ad Reinhardt believed that he was developing the “last paintings” that could be made, that his “black” paintings demonstrated that there was no further place for painting to go. This is Reinhardt’s thinking in a nutshell: “The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more.” In the wake of such thinking, the rise of Minimalism seems inevitable. But that happened in the early 1960s, about fifty years ago.
The idea of the last painting is appealing to many, as it enables them to no longer engage with the kind of messy, open-ended looking (reading) and thinking (reflection) that we associate with poetry. The art world — at least the commercial side tied in with museums — prefers Wade Guyton whose pedigree includes Andy Warhol and Reinhardt. Plus, he doesn’t paint, which only verifies that painting is dead, an obsolete practice. With Guyton, you can sit back and hum Frank Stella to your heart’s content: “What you see is what you see.” Ahh, if only the world were so simple.
What about the opposite problem? How much can you put in? I thought about this question when I first saw the paintings and works on paper of Mernet Larsen. I had never heard of Larsen until I saw her work in the Vogt Gallery. I had been invited to see it by the artist’s dealer, Johannes Vogt, who had gotten my name from a curator in Houston and contacted me in July. He wanted to know if I would be interested in writing a catalog essay on Larsen’s work. I went and looked at the work in August, and it took only a moment for me to decide that I would.
In the culinary world the combination of elements from different cultures is called “fusion.” I am glad that there isn’t an equivalent term in art, which is already glutted with degraded catchphrases.
One thing that struck me about Larsen’s work was her imaginative synthesis and restating of radically different artists and traditions. She isn’t a purist and certainly didn’t do the right thing, which immediately appealed to me. In the multiple perspectives she employs in her imagery, I detect aspects of Giorgio de Chirico and El Lissitzky, early Sienese painting (Giovanni di Paolo and Andrea di Bartolo) and emaki (or Japanese picture scrolls). The perspectives do not jibe with traditional spatial relationships but fit together like overpasses, cloverleaves, service roads, and on-ramps.
The title of Larsen’s debut in New York is “Three Chapters.” The first “Chapter” was “Heads and Bodies” (September 6–September 26, 2012). The second “Chapter” was
“Places” (September 27–October 10, 2012). And the third “Chapter” is “Narratives (October 11–October 27, 2012). My essay will be about work from all three shows. Larsen is 72 and a Professor Emeritus of Painting at the University of South Florida, where she taught for thirty-five years. In the last few years, a few New York critics have championed her work (David Cohen, Mario Naves, and Roberta Smith).
These two paragraphs are from a statement that Larsen has posted on her website:
This painted world must be obviously artificial. It reaches toward, not from, life. The characters and objects are geometric solids, their structures and proportions reinvented in tension with the event depicted. Components are disassembled, reassembled so that the actions are non-organic collaborations of parts. (I often paint the elements separately on tracing paper, try out different noses, heads, hands — , then paste them on). I want the mechanisms of my paintings to be fully visible, each painting an index of my painting behavior: measuring, layering, carving, texturing, coloring, pasting.
I want nonspecific viewpoints, a sense of vertigo, so that you are holding each situation in your mind almost as if you are wearing it. Renaissance, isometric, and reverse perspectives interact, visible as systems, not illusions. Structures are often inspired by the paintings of El Lissitsky, Japanese 12th century narrative painting, Chinese landscape painting, and the palace paintings in Udaipur, India. My hope is that the paintings will turn each event depicted into a singular, object-like entity, rather than forms arranged in space. A committee meeting, for example, should demand an entirely different pictorial structure than shoppers in a mall.
In “Committee” (2007), a conference table begins midway up the right side, then angles downward to span nearly the entire the width of painting before tapering to a sharp point. Two other narrow tables are visible along the painting’s lower edge, in the foreground. Five figures sit on the far side of the large conference table, and, with the table they diminish in size. The figures are geometric solids, as if they were made of blocks. Behind them, on a surface resembling blackboard, the artist has painted open and closed geometric forms. There are six small figures closest to us, but we see only their backs. They are seated at the two narrow tables in the foreground, and they are smaller than any of the figures above them.
The diminishing size of the figures at the larger table as well as the uneven row of smaller figures near the painting’s bottom edge sum up the endless power struggles that are endemic to committee meetings. The small figures along the bottom all have curved backs — they are slumped over suggesting that they are cowed, defeated, or bored.
The increasingly larger figures ascending from the bottom left corner are more rigid, evoking severity. They are bored as well, but also serious and, to this viewer at least, comical and disturbing.
Larsen understands what a body looks like — the studied pose someone takes — when he or she wishes to be elsewhere. No one understands boredom and being stuck as well as her. She is both sardonic and sympathetic. A social consciousness runs through her work, but never becomes the central focus. The narrative never becomes transparent. Her paintings never dwindle into being about this or that. For all of the banality of her subject matter, the paintings remain mysterious.
Mernet Larsen’s paintings do not resemble anyone else’s. They are a complete world and, in that regard, belong to the tradition that includes Giorgio de Chirico and Rene Magritte as well as Roger Brown and Judith Linhares. These worlds “reach toward” ours, even as they pull us in. They adhere to their own logic and follow their own rules.
Her heads are as self-contained and abstract as the ones by Alexei Jawlensky.
Larsen’s subjects include classrooms, coffee shops, vacation spots, and malls — gathering places. She has also explored people sitting in a car, being fitted, exercising in a gym, adoring a child, riding an escalator, shaking hands, and shooting at an unseen target. She paints scenes from contemporary life, conjures up the Old West, and affectionately parodies well-known religious events, such as the Resurrection.
In another painting, “Mall Event” (2010), a woman holds a baby up in the air. No matter how often we look, chances are we will never know why. The moment is fraught with edginess.
Marnet Larsen: “Three Chapters” continues until October 27, 2012 at Vogt Gallery (508–526 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).