press release


About 4 years ago, I began to have a desire to revisit the spirit of 15th c. Italian painting. I wanted clearly volumetric literally representational characters set in architecturally delineated spaces. But I wanted to relate this longing to the abstract paintings I had been doing over the last 15 years, which were largely inspired by aspects of Japanese art: the sensuality, space and compositions of 12 Century Japanese emaki, for example, and the heterogeneous, shifting modalities of Zen teaching. Bunraku, Japan’s traditional puppet theatre, was an ideal bridge. I had been introduced to Bunraku by Roland Barthes who, in EMPIRE OF SIGNS, uses it as the prime exemplar of form exempt of “meaning“, and the spirit of Bunraku had haunted my abstract paintings. In fact, Barthes’ writing had inspired me to go to Japan for 6 weeks in 1985, where I saw Bunraku performed. Now I wanted think about Bunraku more literally and concretely.

In Bunraku, 3 totally visible men (2 hooded in black) walk each puppet through its actions. A narrator on a side stage provides voices for all the roles, punctuated by the sounds of a samisen player. One of the most compelling things about Bunraku is the way in which the subtle visibility of the puppeteers does not distract, even enhances. So, as in Bunraku, I wanted all my mechanisms to be visible.

In my paintings, volume and space are deliberately awkward. Space is a mix of the paraline and reverse perspective of Japanese emaki and Renaissance perspective, visible as systems rather than illusion. Shapes are cut out of paper, painted separately, and pasted on. There are obvious literalisms, like making my own fake linoleum and pasting in each square or rhomboid. As with my earlier paintings, these paintings became indexes of changing modalities of behavior: layering, measuring, gouging, and peeling away previous decisions.

I place my figures at 45 degree angles to the canvas, so that they don’t face the viewer, are not posing or encountering. I want my characters to be impassive objects of contemplation, to embody qualities rather than to depict characters that might have independent lives beyond the painting. Their proportions and odd structures are determined by the unique situation depicted. Gestures and actions are contrived from the outside in, as collaborations of parts. This dismantling of the organic hopefully results in an opaqueness, a freshness, a slowness, which lets you savor each action as a quality.

In a general way, I am always trying to make images that function as intersections: intersections of forms of behavior, sensuous awareness, concepts and ideas, history and memory, and the concrete particulars of life.

2004 Right now, I want to make pictures of characters and objects that are clearly volumetric set in architecturally delineated space. I long to evoke a sense of permanence, solidity, weight: time stopped, essences of memories and relationships made tangible. As if I were leaving this life and had to take with me only a few very concrete images: this is what it was, not good not bad, just what stood out. Not ephemeral, not photo or film like, but memory turned into object, monumentalized.

I want images that evoke a very classical sense of reality underlying appearances, to resurrect the spirit of 15th century Italian painting. However, I am well aware of the philosophical and scientific pitfalls of this dualism, and want to make these as statements of longing, of recognition that essences must be constructed, not uncovered, and that they are make-shift, not based on some kind of underlying accuracy, like anatomy.

This painted world must be artificial, obviously constructed. Like Pinocchio, these characters should reach toward, not from, life. The figures are geometric solids, with elongated or elaborated proportions, emphasizing elemental qualities, Syncretistic details unexpectedly intrude, like punctums. Like Japanese Bunraku puppets, these characters slow down, stop, and expand mundane acts and events. And like Bunraku theatre, where the puppeteers are fully visible, 3 to a puppet, moving the puppet’s body with their visibly moving bodies, so I want the mechanisms of my paintings to be fully visible, each painting an index of my painting behavior: layering, carving, texturing, pasting, peeling; and my awkward mechanizations: mixes of parallel, reverse and scientific perspective.

2001 While they have some bearings on the paintings in the present exhibition, the following statements refer to an earlier, more abstract and improvisational, body of work

These paintings are analogs for people engaged in various activities. They are analogs, rather than representations, because they are not derived from figures. Instead, they are paintings setting up tensions that seem to evoke figures doing things. Each "figure" is the final result of subjecting a rectangle of a particular size and shape to a series of operations. For example, the first decision is: What size and shape do I want the painting be? I try to sense it both as a vast space, like a Chinese landscape painting, and as a surface, an area, like an old wall or a Roman fresco. As I work, I do things to the surface to invoke both of those sensations, thinking about the size and width of lines and marks to invoke scale, constantly layering, carving and scraping to keep in touch with the physical surface. I may evolve structures through enfolding lines in transparent paper; borrowing compositional elements from paintings I like (particularly Japanese narrative paintings); thinking about the surface as a map or floor plan; or responding to tensions in my own body as I paint. I subject the paintings to these and other processes in a state of watchfulness, always looking for a "figure" that feels "right", as if I released it, rather than feeling arbitrary or willful. I like the "figure" to seem like a behavior first, as if the painting is saying: these are things people do (not: here's some guy doing thus and such). I like the "figures" to seem like they are made of components, each part having an independent essence and motivation, so that they suggest that the "body" functions almost like a committee: elements that have gotten together for a moment to perform a particular action. (As if a person is a collection of stuff that "hangs out" together, sometimes compatibly, sometimes not).

1999 The paintings in this show [at the Clayton Gallery, Tampa, Florida, 1994] are attempts to understand myself (and by extention, all of us) as a cluster of componants, sort of like a committee, held loosely together through a kind of juggling act, occasionally achieving a kind of accord, or balance. In the earlier paintings, "Chinese Landscape", "Philosopher's Garden", and "Contemplating Black Creek", I approached this by making an inventory of some of the contents of my consciousness at that point: the vastness of Chinese painting; certain compositions in 12th century Japanese paintings; the landscape in Ozello, Florida (where my husband and I have a retreat); behaviors of cutting, measuring, scraping; some of Roland Barthes' ideas about Bunraku theatre; relating to the canvas very close up; relating to the canvas very far away; animals; shadow puppets. The elements reveal each other, eventually more or less coalescing into a kind of suspenseful accord.While the earlier paintings are more subjective, emphasizing my process, the more recent ones move toward a detached construction of person as object. They are attempts to make very efficient analogs for figures, depicting bodies as collections of semi-independent components, each of which might be subject to a different force or motivation. Some of the elements juggled in these studies include: a white ground, a carved line, a pencil line, a tracing paper line, a tracing paper shape, a brown rectangle, a red rectangle, a pair of black rectangles, a pair of sienna nuggets; thinking of the edges of the page/canvas sometimes as magnets, sometimes as confinements; thinking of the surface as a map; thinking of the painting as a sign; shadow puppets, bunraku puppets; the compositions of certain Indian miniatures, the space of Japanese narrative paintings: first hand accounts of the treatment of slaves in the Caribbean, shame regarding the legacy of slavery, essays by Toni Morrison, and, not least, a reflexive use of the tensions in my own body while I work. These paintings attempt to embrace the collaborative self, the self as a field in the world, not sharply divided from others. Autobiographically, they reveal an attempt to find a solid place to stand, with faith neither in God nor centered purposeful self, but with love for the conflicted richness of life.

1994 I don't require the viewer to see or "read" any of the above when they see the paintings (although one might). I am merely describing my motivation and process. My main hope is that the paintings will convey a sense of clarity, elegance and humor, an odd and intriguing sense of psychological and physical balance.

only in german

Mernet Larsen
The Geometric Figure Paintings