The scenes in Mernet Larsen’s paintings appear familiar, at times even mundane: doing yard work; sitting in a staff meeting; waiting on a subway platform. Yet running through these representations of daily modern life is a distorted sense of reality that suddenly leaves one struggling to find footing within these worlds. Larsen has been painting this way since the early 2000s, channeling both the geometric compositions of El Lissitzky and 12th century Japanese narrative paintings. At the center of her works are block-like characters resembling vintage graphics in an old computer game – both abstract and figurative representations of ordinary people. Applying concepts of reverse perspective and what the artist refers to as “Rorschaching” to insightful, often witty narratives, Larsen inspires us to reconsider the ways in which we relate to the world around us.
Larsen’s artist statement reads: “I try to evoke a sense of permanence, solidity, weight: time stopped, essences of ordinary events made tangible. As if I were leaving this life and had to take with me only a few very concrete images, filtered through wry detachment. Not ephemeral, but memory turned into object, monumentalized. However, I understand these paintings as makeshift contraptions, statements of recognition that essences-and memory-must be constructed, invented, not uncovered.”
“This painted world must be obviously artificial,” she continues. “It reaches toward, not from, life. The characters and objects are geometric solids, their structures and proportions reinvented in tension with the event depicted. Components are disassembled, reassembled so that the actions are non-organic collaborations of parts. (I often paint the elements separately on tracing paper, try out different noses, heads, hands—, then paste them on). I want the mechanisms of my paintings to be fully visible, each painting an index of my painting behavior: measuring, layering, carving, texturing, coloring, pasting.”
Born in Houghton, Michigan in 1940, Larsen has been actively painting since the 1960s. While she has exhibited extensively in Florida, where she lives part-time, only in the past several years has she gained more national attention for her work. Last year, at age 75 years, she made her West Coast debut with her solo exhibition Chainsawer, Bicyclist and Reading in Bed at Various Small Fires in Los Angeles. Another exhibition, Things People Do, followed in 2016 at the James Cohan Gallery in New York City.
Currently, a small selection of her works are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, through October 30. Larsen’s work is also part of collections in the Whitney Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Walker Art Center.