Monday, December 20, 2010

Mernet Larsen: Utility and Beauty @ Mindy Solomon Gallery

I could begin by telling you about Mernet Larsen's distinguished 35-year career at USF until retiring. In between, lecturing  at places like Yale and RISD. Or that some of her students went on to become prominent artists in the area and elsewhere, the distinguished panels in first-rate schools, 25 solo and over 70 group exhibits, or the NEA grant, international stints, but none of it would prepare you for the Larsen paintings being currently shown at Mindy Solomon Gallery.

Take "Ballerina", painted in 2006. The perspective that defines your viewpoint isn't there. Instead, regarding the ballerina and the stage, you're above and to the left. The expressionless couple, who are in an unsustainable pose before the stage, are also to your right, and in front of you, but their seats are almost below you. Notice the receding front of the stage is getting bigger, not smaller, as it gets further away from the viewer. The light is surreal: There are no shadows, but there is slight modeling. We can see no other audience members. Everyone is in their own perspective and space.

In "Walk on a Windy Day", There's two people walking along the window of an eatery. Each seems encapsulated in their own world, and the eatery is empty. It's a little like "nighthawks", except during daytime  The lighting is mildly directional from the restaurant window. Notice the light shadowing around the man's and woman's jawline and arms, yet they cast no shadows. The sidewalk, the figures and the seats of the restaurant booths have a somewhat coherent perspective (about 45-degrees from the viewer), but the floor is at 90 deg or seen from overhead. The "shadows" cast by the booth benches have little to do with the rest of the light direction, and extend the vertical perspective.

Two dour, if not grim-faced young men enter a space carrying large packages in "Shoppers". In a post-9/11 world this is worrisome, or cause for concern. What is concealed in those wrapped packages? Are we right to worry, or are we being paranoid? They are stepping out of a textured, very dark triangle/floor. Note that the man closer to the viewer is seen from above, and the second man who is further away is larger, when he should be smaller, visually, and he is being seen from a low point of view. We can see below the chin of the latter, and not so the former, though we can see the top of his head. On the closer man, the light is coming from his left. On the other one, from the front, and slightly to his right. Again, there are no shadows cast by the figures. Each of the two men are in their own world.

In her artist's statement, Ms. Larsen speaks of her art as "...essences of ordinary events made tangible". Also as "filtered through wry detachment", memory "turned into an object, monumentalized." Unlike many artists who strive to conceal the traces of process in their work, she is at ease with artificiality. The geometry, perspective and the other qualities of the figures and space are deftly used to create tensions and alignments with the events depicted, and in every image, there is a systemic unity between all these aspects in the work.

In spite of the artificiality, the visible components, like tracing paper painted over with acrylics and pasted on to the canvas, these paintings ultimately have a strong gestalt. The effect of the multiple perspectives, at first jarring because the viewer's perception and artistic consciousness are tuned to that we've had since the Renaissance, dislocates one of the viewer's dearest "givens". These paintings change our inner visual language. After you've spent some time with them, they make sense, and their unusual logic becomes clearer.

One of the things that makes a Mindy Solomon Gallery opening is the contact and accessibility of the artists after they talk. At this opening, thanks to the proximity with Thanksgiving, the usual standing-room-only arts crowd was sparse. This gave me a golden opportunity to converse with Ms. Larsen. The amount and depth of research, study, passion and preparation that goes into these paintings is vast, yet only a springboard to her transformative creativity. She is very cognizant of issues in Art History and explores some very esoteric things with which she is fluent: A parody and critique of Renaissance narrative painting. Chinese landscape. El Lissiztky (hints of Suprematism and Proun). Temporary overnight cloth forts used in Uidapur, India transformed into what looks like a coffin in "Icon". During our talk I mention that the isolation of the figures brings to mind Hopper. She smiles, and says that Hopper was on her mind during some of the paintings, pointing to "Walk on a Windy Day". We talk about the perspective, the vertiginous spaces, and I say something about how these tensions create a higher-order tuning-fork resonance(s), something akin to music. All the time, Mernet is transparent, friendly, openly sharing her love of art, interfacing, finding common ground, while gently leading and educating as well.

 A special note of thanks to Mernet Larsen for kindly taking time to talk and to Mindy Solomon for making all this possible.

I'll end by telling you this: Make time to see this one. I'll be going back to see it again.

--- Luis

At Mindy Solomon Gallery. Runs through Dec. 31st. 124 2nd Ave NE, St Petersburg. 727.502.0852

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