Thursday, April 10, 2008
Digital communication floods modern human existence so inescapably that its ubiquitous grid structure has become the normal page on which daily life is written and filmed, bulletined, messaged and photographed.
Santa Cruz artist Robert Larson uses this rigid architecture as the dominating structure of his assemblage paintings composed of thousands of identically manufactured found objects arranged by their sometimes-miniscule variations in color, shine, intensity, singe, tear, warp, mold, mud or moisture to achieve fluidly dynamic geometrics or soft-edged tonal patterns with surprising emotional affect.
The grid that, in past minimalist abstraction seemed the essence of cool intellectual detachment, implies communication and indicates movement in this digital age. Larson’s message is his medium, and the obsessive act of collecting and arranging it, his manifesto.
Robert Larson’s Aesthetics from the Urban Landscape exhibition at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts is a visual meditation comfortable within the Cherry’s thoughtful interior bathed in warm indirect light.
“Witness” faces the entry: a wall-sized work of pale, benevolent, almost romantic elegance whose small variations shimmer mica-like at a distance: a quiet and formal pearly field stained with areas of darker tone that seep from the soft grid with all the tonal subtleties of a Larry Bell or Robert Ryman, creating space so dynamic and redolent of information that the dark areas seem ready to move – perhaps across a giant digital picture screen. The assemblage is tiled with some 1,900 white generic matchbooks found by the artist during the course of two years of scavenging urban landscapes from Oakland to Seattle.
The elegant minimalism of “Witness” dissolves into a groomed chaos up close, its components once homogeneous now exhibiting individualized depth, wear, decay, damp, dirt, singeing, spindling.
“Each one was a white canvas,” says Larson, who on a long walk along the railroad tracks of East Oakland about 15 years ago picked up a dozen or so discarded matchbooks and began to read history in their altered forms.
“They were witness to this environment, like little recording devices,” he says. “I also became a witness.”
Larson is a walker of urban landscapes and obsessive collector of such artifacts as he finds in the back streets and railroad tracks where exists what he calls the “flip side” of the orderly seeming world beyond. Larson at first collected industrial materials that seemed full of history but also attractive for their shape, size and patina – bringing them back to his studio to assemble.
“It was all about format, but then I began to find that the reality of the materials, what attracted me to them, seemed to dissipate in the studio,” he says.
So he began to take his tools to the field with him, creating assemblages in place. He documented his walks in photographs, another form of collecting. A series of these hangs at the Cherry Center, photographs that borrow from the gritty moving cameras of cinema vérité, as if pictures were snapped illicitly from beneath obscuring sleeves, the lens capturing a jumbled view of feet and littered railroad ties.
The artist walked morning to night, the repetitive action of spotting, bending and collecting objects from the landscape seeming to him a re-wind of the careless act of discarding, a monk’s mindful walking meditation. Over more than 15 years he accumulated many thousands of objects. Marlboro and Camel cigarette packs, Top Rolling Papers, certain matchbook covers.
“It began to feel like archaeology,” he says.
The iconic red chevron of the Marlboro cigarette flip-top box has become Larson’s signature artifact-medium. His photographs show the flip side of Madison Avenue’s Marlboro Man mythmaking, the pack crumpled and faded, huddled with the junkie shakes in a pool of mud on the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Larson’s work proffers a conscious homage to Andy Warhol’s multiples, though the Pop master’s exaltation of advertising packaging and celebrities was more ironic. Larson is enchanted with his materials and their meaning.
“Untitled Marlboro” is a giant grace-filled meditative composition of some 1,300 tops of the flip-top packages, the Marlboro name reversed out of the brand’s signature red. Tall columns of such red rectangles – dappled and faded to yellow or orange by light and deterioration, the brand name crackled with snail trails, the thin skin of red torn at the edges of some to reveal white cardboard underneath-swim in a field of pulpy white that is the cardboard from which the smooth red skin has been torn, an uneven white, where carefully random spots shine where red skin still adheres.
“I align with abstract expressionist artists,” Larson says. “They were not cynical or ironic, but trying to infuse art with the spiritual and mythical. I have great faith in art’s ability to express and uplift the human spirit.”
At a time when “eco art” floods galleries and the Web with scavenged objects, and photographic collections like Chris Jordan’s “Running the Numbers” stun the viewer with the unfathomable numeric volume of objects, Larson’s work carves out its own place, a synthesis between form and content, between horror and admiration of his own materials.
ROBERT LARSON, AESTHETICS FROM THE URBAN LANDSCAPE opens 5-7pm, April 11, and continues through May 23 at the Carl Cherry Center, Fourth and Guadalupe, Carmel. Call 624-7491 or see carlcherrycenter.org.