Built Differently: Mernet Larsen’s Strange Constructions
Mernet Larsen: Things People Do at James Cohan Gallery
January 22 to February 21, 2016
291 Grand Street (at Eldridge Street)
New York City, 212 714 9500
Mernet Larsen has been teasing us for a long while now with enigmatic, spatially-warped interiors: are they pure constructions or abstractions from daily life? Her bewitchingly plain, boxy people, the only possible inhabitants of such regimented spaces, are perhaps distant descendants of David Bomberg’s anxious Vorticist personages and Oskar Schlemmer’s utopian Bauhaus ones, as well as the lay figures of how-to-draw manuals and avatars in computer games. But they might not be as generic as they seem. Some have identifying features like beards and glasses that could hold keys to identity. Often their clarified, repressed gestures distill emotion. A recent show of Larsen’s paintings at the new downtown outpost of James Cohan Gallery staked a claim to conquered turf, freshly restating the terms of her practice. Clearly this lately minted star — it was the septuagenarian artist’s first show at a big-name New York gallery, and it sold out — is only just getting started.
One of the new paintings, Alphie (2015), substantially obeys what Larsen calls reverse perspective, her trademark disrupter of conventional pictorial space. This algorithm, in which objects get larger as they recede, is not easy to intuit. You can start by noting that normal perspective paintings, like Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ (ca. 1455–1460), use the very same grid, with parallel lines converging to a point. But Larsen knows how to booby-trap this grid so that, should she choose, she could restore the scale of Piero’s famously upstaged man-god, relegated to the rear, to his rightful priority.
Larsen’s eccentric viewpoints, if plotted conventionally, would actually be closer to Ed Ruscha’s Standard station or a vertiginous Jack Kirby Fantastic Four panel than to centralized Renaissance mises-en-scène. In Alphie, a perfectly logical, if Marvel Comics view of a brick wall hung with a foreshortened portrait rises obliquely on the left of a cafeteria scene. We are looking dramatically up, and can even see a bit of the ceiling. Yet figures sitting at tables — the main subject — are rendered on the grid as if viewed from above, the liquid in a wine glass and a coffee cup attesting to this dissonant gravity with level calm. No matter what you tell your eyes to see, the mapping of up onto down, and thus near onto far, feels dizzying and uncanny, quite aside from the weird proximity of the portrait-hung brick wall’s “normal” space, which somehow seamlessly amalgamates with the rest.
Reverse perspective began to appear in Larsen’s already spatially disruptive compositions around 2007. Patches of the technique’s compelling illogic might be construed in Roman and Byzantine painting, and in the work of El Lissitzky (whom Larsen acknowledges as a source for many of the compositions here), as well as that of Josef Albers, M.C Escher, and Al Held. Larsen’s fully worked-through reverse projections, however, are unprecedented, aside from in the fascinating paintings of Scott Grodesky, who has also made powerful use of the device for many years. On the other hand, no space is ever quite global in Larsen’s world, and in the group of paintings shown at Cohan, the artist seemed at pains to display all the tricks up her sleeve.
Punch (2016) is a variation on the dining theme, an interior of five rather bored friends around a circular table. As in Alphie, the nearest figure is the smallest, but it’s more that he and his two neighbors go upside down, ceiling-wise, while the table above bends magically back into an alternate, isometric gestalt.
With Chainsawer and Bicyclist (2014) Larsen explores even fresher ground. The ostensible subject is a suburban idyll or, alternately, a horror film depending on how one resolves a visual pun. Saul Steinberg would stage incompatible incidents along a single horizontal line, casting it sequentially as a marine horizon, the upper edge of a viaduct, a laundry line hung with clothes, and so on across a dozen pages. Larsen’s humor here is more devilish. The woman with the chainsaw is ominously poised to sever the bare linear logic of the room that contains her, and which also functions as a roadside curb to the oncoming, plunging bicyclist. With fewer shading cues than usual, Larsen lets axial geometry rule; we infer the bike’s front wheel only from a straight black swath, as if the wheel happened to be pitched and yawed just so. The imperiled line under the teeth of the saw barely holds the woman’s and the cyclist’s disparate spatial worlds together. Should time begin to flow, the speeding saw teeth would cut this slender fulcrum like the string of a balloon.
Such tensely buoyant dynamics are the rule of the new paintings. At any rate, they seem airier than Larsen’s previous acrylic canvases, which regularly included zones of impasto. Her current textures — degrees of astringency — are, if not quite as delightful, all the more decisive. Freehand or ruled pencil lines, as always, get the last word along crucial edges of figures, furniture, and architecture; the steely graphite joins Larsen’s smartly shaded planes of color, where needed, into Superflat inlay. Further evidence of the gnarly intellect of the artist’s hand was seen in a number of careful studies, collaged and gridded-off for transfer.
Along with thinner paint quality comes a new lightness of spirit, even overt parody. At any rate, the subjects have emerged from the claustrophobic basements of academe — seminar rooms, linoleum-tiled corridors — into the great outdoors. Frontier (2015) with its rifle-thin riflemen quotes Barnaby Furnas’s Civil War figures almost too closely, substituting for Furnas’s angular bloodbaths the liquefied, queasy undulations of a deforested landscape. Misstep (2015) doesn’t depict the accident of the title so much as it cartoons the crisis of graduation, wherein a sturdy man and woman are sequentially falling forward, lemming-like, from a pixilated Minecraft cliff. Or, if you prefer, they roll off the end of an assembly line into the unknown.
In opening up and broadening their horizons, it must be said that many of the new paintings relinquish the uniquely pressurized sensation characteristic of Larsen’s previous work. But Reading in Bed (2015), in compensation, takes the psychological remapping of space to a new level, by bringing us into the quotidian intimacy of a couple’s domestic blahs. The wrongness of scale is right at home in the brooding disconnect between enormous, watchful wife and diminishing, distracted husband. As with the best of Larsen’s twisted, inverted interiors, one finds oneself — rather in the manner of the film Being John Malkovich (1999) — passing impossibly to the inside of another person’s head.