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Mernet Larsen at James Cohan Gallery

Mernet Larsen, Kindergarten, 2019. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 64 x 52 3/4 in. Collection of Akron Art Museum, Purchased with funds from The Mary S. and Louis S. Myers Endowment Fund for Painting and Sculpture. © Mernet Larsen 2021. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Phoebe d'Heurle.

Mernet Larsen

James Cohan Gallery

December 1, 2020 through January 23, 2021 

By JONATHAN GOODMAN, January 2021 

The older painter Mernet Larsen has been working since the late 1970s. A major enthusiast for the Italian Renaissance artists, especially Piero della Francesca, she has said of this group, “They stopped time.” In a way that is also what happens in Larsen’s spacious, idiosyncratic treatments of her imaginary narratives, which are meant to introduce figuration into earlier works composed entirely as abstract art (El Lissitzky was someone she looked at closely). Much of the eccentricity in the painter’s work comes from the treatment of her figures--long, tall, and narrow persons whose legs, arms, and torsos are characterized by right-angled outlines. Thus, the abstraction becomes a figure, in a manner that upends our expectations of the transformative process. Perhaps eccentricity is too strong to describe the airy, barren world, sometimes entering into outer space, Larsen constructs, but she is creating her own narrative of the world rather than relying on closely copying it as it reasonably exists. Her results, odd but strangely beautiful, keep both past and present alive.

In Kindergarten (2019), a tall woman in a white dress and black leggings sits at a square desk holding a yellow piece of paper. Beside the teacher are two small girls, one in a turquoise dress and the other in a pink smock. At the table are two boys in white shirts; their arms stretch out before them. On the lower left we see a tiny dog; and on the upper right a balloon floating high above the group, with a thin string leading from one of the boys’ hands. The wooden floor is mostly covered by a large blue circle. The subject matter couldn’t be more ordinary: a classroom with a teacher and students. But the odd perspective and the geometric lines of the bodies keep the painting from being conventional in any way. It is this absence of convention, in the face of rather normal tableaus, that makes Larsen so original a painter. Dawn (after El Lissitzky) (2012) is occupied by two figures, one in black and one in blue, with very narrow outstretched arms. A sun is emerging on the bottom right, partially eclipsed by grass and two brown houses, one tall and one short. On the upper left is a pink bar floating in space. The scene, while recognizable, borders on the abstract, referring clearly to El Lissitzky. Larsen’s command of her idiom is all the more admirable for its willingness to acknowledge other painters.

Mernet Larsen, Astronaut: Sunrise (after El Lissitzky), 2020. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 49 1/2 x 49 in. © Mernet Larsen 2021. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Phoebe d'Heurle.

Astronauts: Sunset (after El Lissitzky) (2020) takes us to outer space. The conception is simple: a long rectangular man in a gray space suit, his arms directed toward the upper left of the painting, hovers in empty space. Behind him is the earth, reduced to three colors: mostly dark blue, a sliver in lighter blue, and a rounded, partial edge of red. We may not know the exact painting Larsen is referring to, but the composition does look like it can be traced to one of El Lissitzky’s abstractions. One of the things that does stand out in these works, all of them, is a muted humor that results from the unusual forms Larsen uses to portray people. In Deliverance (after El Lissitzky) (2020), a tonsured monk, dressed in black, extends a large chicken to a person hanging upside down in the open air, who grabs the creature’s lower neck. Behind this strange scene of ritual piety, not without a hint of violence, is a sphere like the moon, calibrated by blue lines and regularly marked with craters. One recognizes the severity of the event, which is both original and a homage to the great Russian modernist.

Mernet Larsen, Deliverance (after El Lissitzky), 2020. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 64 1/2 x 52 1/4 in. © Mernet Larsen 2021. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Phoebe d'Heurle.

Larsen’s otherworldly paintings depict circumstances we are familiar with. But her lexicon is so original as to be decidedly innovative. Her compositions are relatively simple, yet they do introduce a complexity resulting from her painterly influence and, most important, her choice of geometric forms to characterize the components of her art. The results are genuinely original. By internalizing and transforming the art of El Lissitzky, Larsen keeps that modernist moment in time alive. This is not easy to do, in a time when much contemporary art is rejecting most historical impulse. As someone committed to developing her own language, Larsen makes sure that while she may begin with idiosyncrasy, she quickly moves into highly original tableaus that are independent in outlook. It is not so easy to find someone so taken with a view of her own, a view which is aware of painting’s legacy and which maintains a certain restraint, in a time when expressionism, both in form and feeling, is trumping the possibility of balance and measure. WM

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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