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Mernet Larsen

United States of America

1940 –

  • Details

    Media category
    Materials used
    synthetic polymer paint and mixed media on canvas
    174.0 x 156.2 cm
    Signature & date

    Signed and dated l.l. verso, pencil and paint "Mernet Larsen/ 2016".

    Patricia Lucille Bernard Bequest Fund 2016
    Not on display
    Accession number
    © Mernet Larsen

    Reproduction requests

    Artist information
    Mernet Larsen

    Works in the collection


  • About

    Born in 1940, Mernet Larsen studied at the University of Florida (1958-62) and Indiana University (1963-65). Except for a brief period in the 1970s, when she intermittently lived and worked in New York City, Larsen has based her practice in Tampa, where she holds the position of Emeritus Professor at the University of Southern Florida.

    Larsen’s earliest works, dating to the late 1950s and early 1960s, rejected abstract expressionism, which dominated the market as well as painting schools at the time, and developed what has been described as a conceptual approach to figurative painting. Depicting ordinary subjects observed in her daily life, Larsen’s paintings were had less concerned with a desire to “express” herself than with analysing the things she experienced. “My life was fairly mundane at that point,” Larsen reflected in 2015, “I was living at home. So I didn’t want to express my life, I wanted to giving meaning to my life. It had to be a constructed thing.”(1) Couches, tables and other banal domestic objects, which have recurred throughout her practice, first appeared in Larsen’s work at this time.

    In the early 1980s, Larsen had two important art encounters that prompted significant developments in her work. Firstly, between 1980 and 1983, she studied Renaissance painting and became interested in the practice of making preliminary, highly geometric sketches of the human figure as well as in Vermeer’s use of monochromatic underpainting (grisaille). This prompted her to make several paintings of geometric figures in highly reductive palletes. Subsequently, in 1984, Larsen viewed the Malevich retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and also became interested in the work of El Lissitzky. Intrigued by the allusive potential of the artists’ non-objective compositions, she addressed them as Rorschach ink blots, or floorplans, and began creating works that reprised the original paintings as quasi-figurative, narrative compositions.

    In 1986, Larsen spent 6 weeks in Japan where she was inspired by 9th-12th Century narrative scrolls, especially those found in the Kitano and Genji Shinto shrines. The shifting perspective in these scrolls and their schematic approach to composition has continued to influence her paintings to the present day. They also elicited a desire to make her paintings more tactile and gave rise to her incorporation of painted paper elements on the surface of her canvas.

    A turning point in Larsen’s career occurred around 2000. In the artist’s words:
    “I decided that I wanted to paint old-fashioned narrative paintings with volume and depth and the essences of significant actions. I developed a longing for pictures evoking a classical sense of permanence, solidity, in the spirit of 15th century Italian painting. But I knew these paintings would have to be statements of longing, of recognition that essences must be constructed, not uncovered. They would have to be makeshift contraptions, taking into consideration the issues I had been dealing with for the previous 40 years.”(2)

    In her post-2000 work, Larsen might be said to have processed the conventions of narrative, representational painting without becoming a representational artist. In fact, the artist describes her paintings as “analogs” rather than “representations”, aligning her work, as John Yao has observed, with the late figurative paintings of Philip Guston.

    In her most recent works Larsen has confidently brought together many of the disparate sources that have informed her practice and experimented with different approaches to perspective. ‘Punch’, reprises one of the key subjects of the artist’s oeuvre, people gathered around tables, and has a special significance in that it is based on the artist’s own photograph of her family reunion. It employs reverse perspective (wherein objects appear larger as they are further away) and a reductive, geometric treatment of the figure to transform a banal domestic ritual into a comical, yet disconcerting image. Despite our immediate recognition of the type of event depicted, it simultaneously feels completely alien. As John Yau wrote of the sensation of viewing Larsen’s work “it’s as if we have never seen anything like them before… Seeing becomes a kind of detective work, searching for clues while sorting through the visual evidence. This is the undeniable power of Larsen’s work — she endows ubiquitous occurrences with an oddness that, on the surface of things, seems logical.”(3) For Larsen, this uncanny quality relates to the formation of memory. She has described wanting her pictures to be places where “time stopped…As if I were leaving this life and had to take with me only a very few concrete images… not good, not bad, just what stood out. Not ephemeral, not photo or film-like, but memory turned into object, monumentalised.”(4)

    1. Mernet Larsen, quoted in Priscilla Frank, ‘Meet Mernet Larsen, a 75-year-old painting who’s hosting her first art show in L.A.’, The Huffington Post, 3 March 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/mernet-larsen_n_6771164, viewed 14 September 2016.
    2. Mernet Larsen, quoted in John Yao, ‘Mernet Larsen’, Damiani, Bologna, 2013, p.9.
    3. Yao, op. cit, p.11.
    4. ibid, p.9.

  • Exhibition history

    Shown in 4 exhibitions

  • Bibliography

    Referenced in 1 publication

    • Noah Dillon, Frieze no.179, Review: 'Mernet Larsen, James Cohan Gallery, New York', pg.213, London, May 2016, 213 (colour illus.). no.4