Mernet Larsen’s paintings gradually reveal themselves. At first, we might recognize the internal logic and structure of her compositions: their symmetry or the hard-edged geometry she uses to render characters and spaces. But the longer one stands in front of her paintings, the more quizzical and humorous they become. They evoke the anxieties of daily life, and yet there is delight in responding to the open-ended, sometimes absurdist questions they pose. Is the chicken a polite offering from a monk or is it under threat in this hand-off with an angel? Is the lifeguard presiding over the shore or wielding a rifle at a dystopian abandoned airport? Ordinary garden shears, a bald eagle, and a red truck become predatory symbols in a suburban street scene shown from various vertiginous perspectives.
Larsen spoke with me over video conference from her home in Tampa, Florida. Before our interview, we chatted about our daily routines — and how they had been changed by the pandemic. It was around the time of the holidays, but neither of us had much on our calendars. Her exhibition, Mernet Larsen, at James Cohan Gallery in New York was on view, but she was unable to travel to see it.
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Larsen’s paintings communicate this kind of situation: where everything normal is awry, but mundane experience continues. People are gathered but dislocated, isolated from one another. We observe each other from unstable ground. Larsen questions everyday power structures with a sense of humor and a matter-of-fact attitude.
Mernet Larsen (b. 1940) was the subject of solo exhibitions at the Akron Art Museum in 2019 and the Tampa Museum of Art in 2017. Her work has been included in exhibitions at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C., and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, among other institutions. Her first solo New York gallery show was in 2012, at the Johannes Vogt Gallery. She has been the subject of three solo exhibitions at James Cohan Gallery, which represents her work. Larsen received her BFA from the University of Florida and her MFA from Indiana University. She lives and works in Tampa, Florida.
Jennifer Samet: How did you start making art? Did you draw or paint as a child?
Mernet Larsen: I was born in Michigan and spent my early childhood years in Chicago. My family moved to Gainesville, Florida, when I was 11. My father, who was an engineer, taught at the University of Florida. I was raised in a family that valued individuality. There were always people who were better at drawing than I was, but I put a lot of stock into a fresh way of seeing things. Rather than being attracted to artists because of their skills or sensitivity, I was always more interested in ideas and imagination.
I went to an experimental high school where I was around artists teaching at UF, so I was aware of contemporary art. Even in high school I was starting with the ideas that have occupied me for my entire painting life. For example, I made a painting of penguins in the snow based on a scene from a Disney movie. In it, everything is sort of obliterated by the snow. I wanted to crystallize the essence of penguins in the snow. I started working with thick paint and layered collage, building up textures on the surface, peeling and carving, so that the painting was an embodiment, rather than an illusion.
I also made a large painting of a classmate who lived in a chicken coop in a town near us. He was malnourished and his growth had been stunted. Everyone made fun of him. The painting was very expressionistic, like Picasso’s Blue Period. I was trying to capture his essence. It’s still one of my favorite paintings. It was hung in the hallway of the school, and everyone recognized him. As a result, he became very popular.
JS: That is a great story, and it’s amazing you can trace these impulses back to high school. Did your work continue this way when you got to college?
ML: I went to college at the University of Florida, so I was still living at home in Gainesville. I wasn’t sure if I was going to major in art. By then, everyone was under the aegis of Abstract Expressionism, especially Willem de Kooning. Or you could go toward Josef Albers and be more intellectual. But it was taboo to make representational paintings.
Fortunately, I had a fantastic teacher, the painter Hiram Williams. I went to him and said, “I think I’m not going to major in art because what I want to do with my life is give form to the concrete experiences that I have. But it doesn’t seem like this is what art is about.”
Williams said in response, “You don’t have to make abstract paintings. You can do whatever you want. Take your sketchbook and go out in the world.” I followed his advice and took my sketchbook down to Rattlesnake Creek, where I had played as a kid. But it didn’t resonate with me, and I thought, “I’m really not meant to be an artist.” I started walking across the campus back to the art department.
The university had a teaching farm. I walked across a hill and saw a group of cows. Something clicked. I took out my sketchbook and started drawing them. They became shapes against a background. I ran back to my studio and started painting yellow fields with bright red cows. Everybody was relieved that I had found something, since I had seemed so frustrated. It took weeks to develop these paintings, but it was a turning point. I realized that I would identify things in my life, and let each subject determine how it wants to be painted. I was not going to predetermine the style.
JS: You were lucky to have had that teacher. I know you also studied with James McGarrell. Can you tell me about him as well?
ML: Yes, I was really lucky with teachers. When I was 20, I went to the San Francisco Art Institute and studied with Nathan Oliveira. He was a fantastic teacher. There were amazing people in that summer class, like Gregory Gillespie, and Jane Allen, who later founded the New Art Examiner. Being in that ambiance was incredible.
I went to the University of Illinois for my first year of graduate school and hated it. The first thing a teacher said to me was, “You’re too young to be settling down on a style. You should try collage.” He named all these other techniques and styles, as if they were things you could put on like clothes. I was sophisticated enough at that point to know that style was a process and an evolution in one’s work. You couldn’t just pick one, and I had been on a roll with what I was doing.
James McGarrell was teaching at Indiana University, but he was also a visiting artist at the University of Illinois. He was my savior! His paintings were figurative and they were very imaginative. He was dealing with all sorts of subjects and objects. We hit it off. We would get a cup of coffee and say to each other, “Have you ever painted a bathtub? A piano? Tornadoes?” It was almost like a competition. At that time, figuration had seemed primarily based on the tradition of the figure and the nude.
I transferred to Indiana University and worked with him. At that time, the faculty and the graduate students had their studios on the same floor. When I had trouble with my work, I would visit his studio and talk about his work. It helped me define and differentiate myself.
Other than the wonderful encounter with McGarrell, I didn’t get much encouragement. Many biases existed, although William Bailey was a positive force. Most dogmatic of all the people I worked with in graduate school was Leland Bell. When he arrived, he asked which artists I liked. I said, “Francis Bacon.” His eyes popped out of his head. “That horror illustrator?!”
JS: Although you lived in New York for a period of time, you’ve generally established your life outside of this city. I wonder if it is linked to your desire to work against mainstream trends?
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ML: I fell in love with New York in 1956 when my family lived there for one summer. When I was 21, I saved up my money and went to the Art Students League for two months. I started teaching at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, in 1967, but spent many years intermittently in New York until 1980. My husband, the artist Roger Palmer, and I converted three manufacturing lofts there into live-in studios, and I developed a New York program for USF. But after a while, it felt like everybody was talking about the same things; in its own way, it seemed insular. It seemed more interesting to locate myself internationally.
So, in 1980, I decided that in Tampa I could get a good salary, thus have more time to work. I was given total license in the way that I taught, and I worked with great graduate students. I received grants to go to Japan, India, China. I traveled to Mexico and Europe many times. I was getting my sources of inspiration from other cultures — which, of course, many artists were by the late 1970s. But, as you suggest, it allowed me to develop my own idiosyncratic ways. My work could function as an argument, of sorts, against things happening in the art world.
JS: I know that Japanese art has been an influence. How has it played a role in your work?
ML: I went to Japan in 1985, where I fell in love with 12th-century Japanese Emaki — horizontal narrative scrolls. I did impressions based on looking at a reproduction of the legends of the Kitano Shrine scroll upside down and sideways. First, I used compositional sections as springboards for abstract compositions. Then, later on, I used my abstract paintings as springboards for representational paintings.
My characters are connected to studying Bunraku puppet theater. That was what initially brought me to Japan. Bunraku puppets are graceful and have a human quality; they aren’t jerky, like marionettes.
JS: Do you have a term or a name for the geometric figures in your work?
ML: I call them characters. When people first look at them, they might think they are robotic, or schematic, or computerized. But when I look at them, I think of them as characters who live in the world of that particular painting. Also, my link is to Renaissance painting. Renaissance painters often began with a geometric drawing as they painted figures. Ultimately, the characters in my work developed out of the sources I was using. If I used El Lissitzky as the source, I tried to see how little I could change.
JS: Can you tell me more about how El Lissitzky’s work has been a source for your paintings?
ML: I have made riffs on El Lissitzky paintings for many years, perhaps because of the multiple axes in his work. I have also worked with other art-historical sources, like Poussin, early Renaissance paintings, and the 18th-century palace paintings in Udaipur, India. About half of my paintings utilize art-historical sources, and the other half don’t.
For a period of about 15 years, largely under the influence of Roland Barthes and structuralism, I became fascinated with the idea of making something parallel to representation. I was making paintings by deconstructing abstract paintings. In 2000, I quit making these abstract deconstructions, because I wanted clearly representational paintings.
Now, when I am looking at El Lissitzky paintings and turning them upside down, what I see becomes very compelling. This takes over. I no longer see an El Lissitzky; I see a man on a raft, or someone bunting a baseball. It works like a true Rorschach.
JS: Your baseball painting, “Bunt” (2016), shows a massive, totemic batter. How did that composition develop?
ML: When I was a kid, I was very into baseball. Because of the way the games are photographed for television, the pitcher, the batter, and the catcher all look about the same size. However, if you were standing on the field behind the pitcher, the pitcher would be big, and the catcher would be small. I always found that TV distortion fascinating. El Lissitzky’s compositions gave me an opportunity to play with that, and to exaggerate the effect of reverse perspective.
I created a monumental batter, but then — in following the logic of reverse perspective — I also tried to make the catcher really big. This made the batter seem puny. Resolving these issues are the kinds of decisions which occupy months of the painting process. Then, I considered whether the circular form in the El Lissitzky painting at the upper right could be a moon, or could be a baseball.
JS: Your process involves collaging paper onto canvases. The paper is not always immediately visible to a viewer. Why do you incorporate tracing paper, and how does it figure into your painting process?
ML: I make a lot of little sketches in my sketchbook. When I find one that I like, I enlarge it to a 19-by-24-inch piece of Bristol paper. Then I enlarge that study meticulously to a large canvas. When you enlarge something, you tend to normalize it. I want to retain the idiosyncrasies that exist in the source or my sketch.
After that, I usually spend at least two to three months on the painting. I tape tracing paper to areas I am unsure of and I draw different possibilities. I bring the pieces of paper to my table and paint them in. I get them wet and test them on the canvas, one by one, like trying on clothes. When I find something I like, I attach it to the painting with acrylic medium.
This method allows me to retain the clarity of the underpainting and the structure. Also, I like the way the tracing paper interacts with the acrylic paint. It becomes a livelier and less plastic surface.
JS: You have made several paintings of faculty meetings, as well as depictions of conference room and situation room meetings. In them, you show figures arranged in a disorienting reverse perspective. How did reverse perspective become incorporated into these subjects?
ML: I started making paintings of faculty meetings in 2004, after I had retired from teaching. I took photographs of my former colleagues in meetings. I tried painting them in the parallel perspective I had been using for a few years, but they looked cluttered because there were so many figures. So I had this idea: what would happen if I became the vanishing point? Everything would get bigger as it moved away from me.
I traced the tabletops from the photographs upside down and located the vanishing point, which was now below the painting. Then I drew the figures in to fit around those tables. I liked what happened. It became a way of defamiliarizing faculty meetings and dealing with their psychology.
In “Explanation” (2007), the Black man I represent ended up being huge and the woman, seated next to him, looks like the center of attention. All the other characters are little men. When I was teaching, the faculty was almost all white men. I didn’t set out to make a point, but the painting turned out that way.
JS: Are you saying that you don’t begin the painting with a political agenda?
ML: I find that it’s very dangerous for me to set out to make a political point. It works better if it comes out of me intuitively. In the painting “Intersection (After El Lissitzky)” (2020), I didn’t have an agenda about content. I was drawn to a circle in an El Lissitzky painting. I thought it could be a planet or a moon — but ultimately it looked like a wheelchair. Those ideas and associations get the painting started.
Similarly, I did not begin the painting “Departure (After El Lissitzky)” (2019) with the intention to express something about global warming. I just liked the idea of all of the characters leaving. The penguin is going along with the characters, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. That struck me as very funny. Of course, later I realized it could be a metaphor for global warming. Everybody is leaving; even the penguin has to leave.
JS: Can you talk more about how humor is an integral part of your paintings? Even your paintings responding to Renaissance religious themes can be funny!
ML: For the paintings “Nativity” (2005) and “Resurrection” (2006), I used 15th-century Sienese paintings as springboards. I was thinking about how Renaissance paintings have a horizon line that stabilizes the figures and the viewer. The figures are volumetric, and even the angels are painted as if they weigh 150 pounds. It seemed humorous that massive figures could be floating. I decided to make paintings that amplified this strangeness. In “Resurrection,” it is as if the Jesus figure has been sprung out of the grave and is zooming upward.
I find that, in my work, humor has to enter into play somewhere. There is usually some aspect that will make me smile and get me more engaged. I don’t even start a painting if I don’t know what the basic structure and actors are going to be. The process is about making a believable tension between the formal structure and the situation depicted. In this way, banal situations seem unfamiliar and disorienting.
I know that I am interested in a subject, but I don’t know why. The painting becomes that exploration. I don’t necessarily end up with a meaning but, hopefully, a kind of truth that invites us to think about ordinary life.