Mernet Larsen, The Writer (2000), acrylic and tracing paper on canvas, 50″ x 50″; courtesy The New York Studio School
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Upon receiving the invitation to Mernet Larsen: The Geometric Figure Paintings, an exhibition at The New York School, I took one look at the painting reproduced on its face and promptly deposited it in the wastebasket. How could the Studio School, that rigorous bastion of high sculpture, devote precious gallery space to out-and-out kitsch? The depiction of robotic parents gazing at their equally robotic newborn, keyed to a bubblegum palette, looked to be some kind of retro pastiche combining Cubist impulses, hard-edge abstraction, folk art and futurism as practiced by DC comics circa 1963.
Having stopped by the exhibition on the way to pick up my son from school, I found myself dumbstruck by the paintings–and late to collect my son. The Studio School invitation doesn’t begin to do justice to Larsen’s ambitious and impeccably crafted vision. Desiring to “revisit the spirit of 15th c. Italian painting” and Japanese Bunraku puppet theater, Ms. Larsen creates tilting panoramas featuring tea ceremonies, cowboys and cowgirls, the hand of God and an interrupted erotic encounter involving two women, one man and a pair of kayaks.
A stern vein of absurdism runs through the work, as do moments of surprising quietude (check out the expression, thoughtful and true, on The Writer (2000)), as well as the more predictable alienation of Handshake (2001-02). A certain remove is to be expected given Ms. Larsen’s stylized figures, which are depicted as if they were cobbled together from blocks of wood. (The figures are often softened by naturalistic features.) The pictures are graced by a methodology that’s hard to unravel: Ms. Larsen integrates acrylic and oil paints, tracing paper, manipulated textures and oddments of string with beguiling seamlessness.
Ms. Larsen’s art puts me in mind of Richard Lindner, another painter who envisioned humankind as an unceasing parade of automatons engaged in ritualistic narratives. Like Lindner, Ms. Larsen can’t be buttonholed–the work is too multi-faceted and individual, too damned odd, to merit a convenient peg. It won’t appeal to those who like their art quick, slick and easy. I’m not sure it will appeal to those who like their art slow. The pictures aren’t to all tastes. It’s almost as if that’s the point.
A couple of things are certain: the probity of the artist’s vision, the consideration that is brought to bear on material means and the work’s deep-seated originality. Mernet Larsen is a find.
© 2005 Mario Naves
A version of this article was originally published in the January 31, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.