Liz Larner’s latest sculptures are quizzical, indeterminate, hybrid and seductive, advocating pleasure and politics while seeming to acknowledge their tenuous irreconcilability. The work seems to signal a transitional and experimental moment for the artist and her approach to conditions of space and perception. Dominating the gallery, Diamond Deserts (2004–5) was a cavernous semi-enclosed space formed from the combination of a monumental arcing parenthesis of black rubber and the precisely blacked-out surfaces of the floor, walls and ceiling of a large corner of the room. The welling chasm of rubber, ink and paint, extending high into the wooden rafters of the gallery, served as the setting for several diminutive quasi-anthropomorphic sculptures. Permeating everything was the potent odour of the rubber, which reeked like an unchecked gas leak or oil spill. The work’s title was taken from the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s 1940 song, ‘This Land is Your Land’, which was written as a response to the syrupy jingoism of ‘God Bless America’, which became an anthem of the American left during the McCarthy era and more recently of post-9/11 patriotism.
Bearing the above in mind, perhaps Diamond Deserts can be read as a sadomasochistic sail or a dark, sexy cavity (some perceive a giant thong), an elusive space conjuring an abyss of abstracted recollections of things American. Remembering Guthrie’s line ‘this land was made for you and me’, Larner’s project becomes humorous and haunting in light of another sculpture that occupied the space: RWBs (2005) – short for ‘red, white and blues’. Cloaked in a patriotic palette, this tumbleweed of aluminium tubing, fabric, wire and ribbon seemed ironically apt, as the opening weekend of the show coincided with the 4 July celebrations. Produced in a climate of flag-waving, barbecues and firework displays, Larner’s detonation of nationalist iconography is a measured response to the absurdity of celebrating American independence in a climate of empire and war. She has said that inherent in this work is an ‘anxiety that accompanies being aware of the traumas others experience’. This dynamic wreckage is a surprising and strange addition to Larner’s lexicon, anomalous in relation to the more complex interactions between form and colour of her previous sculpture. It is up to the viewer to negotiate how to handle these charged tools in an effort to ‘engage with the moment at least to try to comment on it, to make it physical’.
RWBs was the messiest work in the room, a growth or ruin, an entangled mass both controlled and harried. Despite Larner’s having filled a room with abstract sculptures, the petrochemical smell and the palette (red, white, blue, and black) undeniably summoned the occupation of Iraq. RWBs inhabited the space in a hostile fashion, in contrast to the fragile Guest (2005) – a modest Slinky-like chain of elliptical golden rings hanging in another corner of the gallery. Larner conceived of this work as being ‘placeless’, responding inconcretely to various contexts. It perhaps most directly alluded to the artist’s muse for this show, the writer Joan Didion, whose 2003 memoir Where I Was From encompasses the historical mythology of California, the Golden State. Accompanying Guest was a nearby monochrome drawing titled In Them There Hills (2005). With Guest Larner visualized the fiction and responded to the old California prospectors’ myth, ‘there’s gold in them there hills’. Here the poetic and the political became unstably social, and for Larner ‘the aesthetic is manipulated and put to use’.
Larner’s cast porcelain Smiles (1996–2005), some of it nesting within the overhanging maw of Diamond Deserts like jagged bicuspids, embodied her mantra that nothing is purely abstract. With a nod to Lynda Benglis and Louise Bourgeois, it was crafty and polished, futuristic and archaic, feminine and phallic, expressing the artist’s ambivalence towards categories and reflecting a negotiation of both Conceptual and Formalist tendencies. A photograph in the back gallery captured the spectacle of casino mogul Steve Wynn razing the legendary Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas – a contemporary escalation of expansion in the West. This scene of destruction and renewal reverberated throughout the show, with Larner’s new body of work directly approaching ‘the world not just as a given … [but] as a construction’.