For over six decades, artist Mernet Larsen has created narrative paintings depicting hard-edged, enigmatic characters that inhabit an uncanny parallel world filled with tension and wry humor. Employing a wry approach towards constructing spatial systems and relations between objects and bodies on the canvas, her pieces combine reverse, isometric, and conventional perspectives to pose everyday scenarios in a vertigo-inducing version of reality akin to our own. For her new exhibition at James Cohan Gallery in New York, the artist returns to her diverse array of graphical influences, drawing on the languages of art of the past as springboards for uniquely spatial figure-paintings that speak to the anxieties of the present.
The twelve works on view in this exhibition belong to the ever-evolving body of narrative painting Larsen has been creating for over twenty years, using bodies as studies in the perception-altering use of scale and size. With an emphasis on paring down, understanding, and manipulating the spatial elements of narrative painting, Larsen’s work over the past two decades draws on the language of abstraction in concert with her landscapes and figures, moving away from easy attributions as optical illusions and towards a more authentic representation of spatial disorientation and the space of the canvas in equal measure, searching between the two for a more authentic form of representation.
The works on view here draw on the non-objective compositions of El Lissitzky, a central touchstone for Larsen and a foundational voice in the development of Russian modernism. Using Lissitzky’s abstract forms as parameters for free-association, Larsen slowly builds geometric structure into a psychological ordering of representational space, turning the Russian’s cubic abstractions into meditations on figures in space, bodies posed in impossible relation to each other. In Astronaut: Sunrise (after El Lissitzky) and Astronaut: Sunset (after El Lissitzky), Larsen uses the lines and abstract forms of a 1924 composition by El Lissitzky as visual templates in the process of gradually assembling planes to construct figures in space. The resulting paintings each depict a planet undergoing a phase transition with an astronaut floating in the foreground, all rendered in reverse perspective. These vertigo-inducing spaces lack any implicit horizon line or a reliable vantage point.
Larsen’s compositions suggest perception has the ability to transform the way that we see the world around us by shifting the way we prioritize visual information. This new body of work reinforces her abilities in creating and diffusing tension through experiments on the grid, and alterations of space itself.
The show closes January 23rd.
– D. Creahan
Exhibition Site [James Cohan]