MERNET LARSEN Things People Doby Eleanor Ray
JAMES COHAN GALLERY | JANUARY 22 – FEBRUARY 21, 2016
Mernet Larsen’s Things People Do range from the mundane to the quixotic, forming an unlikely index of human activity: reading, sitting, spearfishing, falling, operating a chainsaw. The eight large-scale acrylic and mixed-media paintings (2014 – 2016) and eight smaller works (2004 – 2014) in her first solo show at James Cohan Gallery have a funky variety on a formal level as well, with Larsen alternating between systemization and an open, trial-and-error approach. She matches her figures’ preoccupied activity with her own preoccupations of making—each image becomes a visual thought experiment about representational shorthand and spatial construction. Despite this seeming intellectual distance, the paintings have a surprising warmth; their symbolist power is deepened by matter-of-factness.
The breadth of Larsen’s influences, from Japanese narrative scrolls to Udaipur palace painting, indicates an interest in diverse approaches to organizing figures in space. She shares with the Chicago Imagists an affinity for 15th-century Sienese painting, including artists like Giovanni di Paolo and Sassetta, who diverged from the Vasari-endorsed singular perspective of the Florentine Renaissance to find room for more individual solutions. This independence has been important for Larsen too, as she moves between reverse perspective, isometric perspective, and variants of the birds-eye view according to the needs of each image. In his survey Sienese Painting, Timothy Hyman proposes that these alternatives “create an abstraction of space, whose appeal is not to the fixed optics of the spectator, so much as to the winged flight of the dream-voyager. What is conveyed is the child’s wonder at the immensity of the world, of life’s quest as a game to be played across it.”
Larsen’s paintings can have a game board feeling as well, with figures placed in strange locations according to mysterious perspectival rules. Her figures occupy the wilderness of abstract paintings, in compositions often drawn directly from El Lissitzky. When she turns his free-floating constructivist lines into figures, gravity serves as a succinct source of visual humor—a danger in Misstep (2015), or an anchor in Frontier and Campers (both 2015), rooting the figures securely to a tilting surface. Frontier and Campers further articulate ideas that were already present in her near-monochrome paintings of the late 1980s and ’90s, when only the titles indicated that compositional lines could be read as figures moving up an escalator, hang gliding, or shooting an arrow. In the new paintings, a constellation of local details emerges, gently disrupting the rigid geometry—we notice hats, noses, knees, swimsuits, the surface of a piece of lumber and the hands carrying it.
These isolated moments are central to Larsen’s individuality, which comes from a kind of selective attention or interest. She appears very engaged with the details of ears but not at all with those of mouths or noses, which she tends to render systematically as a line and a triangle. The undersides of the chin and nose come into strange focus, treated as simple planes. The figures are rendered in just two or three tones, the color usually getting more saturated in the shadow, where jewel-like oranges, pinks, and turquoises seem to take on force by absorbing light. It’s funny to find this system persistently maintained even in Campers and Frontier, where the figures are barely wider than a pencil and the light hitting them becomes a very thin stripe.
In the best paintings, like Alphie (2015), Larsen’s descriptive economy feels expansive rather than reductive. Each of Alphie’s three figures has a distinct presence, their postures animated by moments of detail, like the curving striped shirt and folded hands of the man on the lower right, or the angle of the shoulders of the woman in pink. The specificity of that figure’s uplifted head and eyebrows renders her straight-line mouth surprisingly expressive. And, in turn, the neutral, linoleum-like colors of the interior take on a luminous richness in combination with the saturated pink shirt and the deep reds of the wine and tile floor.
Unusual perspectives in Alphie and Punch (2016) reinforce the mood of selective engagement by shifting the viewer’s perceived distance to foreground and background, mirroring the wandering focus of inattention. These are scenes of boredom familiar from Larsen’s previous work. In reverse perspective, the lower part of the painting, which would typically appear closest to us, is made to seem further away. We identify intuitively with the largest figure—the solitary woman in pink in Alphie. The warping of space produces a sensation of empathy heightened by distance; the image seems to reach us from this woman’s perspective, as if from the inside out, as she dreams the scene, perhaps including the viewer. This reversal of emphasis has an intuitive logic that recalls Cézanne’s views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, where the distant mountain feels closer and more important to the painter than the ground.