Primers to life drawing typically include two instructive techniques. One is to break down the subject into simpler forms, such as boxes and spheres; the other is a lesson in one- and two-point perspective. In ‘Things People Do’, her first solo show at James Cohan (and second ever with a New York commercial gallery), Mernet Larsen plays with both of these exercises to make deceptively simple yet compelling images. The apparent plainness of their subjects belies the visual tricks that the artist uses to distort bodies and their spatial relationships, yielding surprisingly weird pictures.
At 76, Larsen has only recently emerged on the New York art scene. In the early 1960s, she studied at the Universities of Florida and Indiana, with summer studies at New York’s famous Art Students League. She had a show at the New York Studio School in 2005 and another at Johannes Vogt in 2012. Yet, aside from inclusions in New York and London group shows, much of her exhibition career has been built at regional spaces, mostly in Florida. (She splits her time between New York and Tampa.)
Like the artworks themselves, the show is spare: eight large acrylic paintings in the front room and eight smaller drawings and studies in the back. Most feature scenes of middle-class work and leisure: reading in bed, office meetings, a dinner party. Larsen’s figures are rendered as blocky mannequins – robotic in their appearance but appreciably human in their affect, they’re reminiscent of avatars in the video game Minecraft or Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing (1985) music video. Their clothes, hair and other features cling to their bodies like the ‘skin’ wrapped over a digital model. The textures occasionally present appear flat – just 2D blocks of colour.
Each of Larsen’s forms is outlined heavily in pencil, revealing significant reworking and adjustment. On some sections of her paintings, she has pasted images on tracing paper. They pop up subtly in paintings such as Alphie (2015) and Punch (2016). You can pick out the collaged brickwork in Misstep (2015) where it sticks out a little too sorely, amplified by the unclear allegorical image of a couple toppling from a ledge as three identical men climb a hill in the background.
In each painting, perspective has been dramatically warped. People and objects grow larger as they recede. The visual focus of the image is often essentially stable while the rest of the scene involutes around it – growing, skewing and/or compressing. Larsen meticulously plots her compositions on paper before enlarging them, as can be seen in the preparatory drawing Study for Reunion (2012), with her measurements jotted in its margins.
Although Larsen began her career as an abstract expressionist and colour field painter, Joel Shapiro-like stick-figure forms began to appear in her compositions in the 1990s, which were increasingly drawn from Japanese emaki and Russian constructivism (in particular, El Lissitzky). Recognizable bodies serve as formal guides for the viewer, characters that anchor Larsen’s abstractions in real space.
In their depictions of quotidian scenes, Larsen’s paintings emphasize the way visual and narrative hierarchies are conjoined or interrupted. Perspective alters the way we interact with the world. (Curiously, none of her figures touch but, rather, exist in close proximity to one another.) You might wonder at the way race and class figure in the perspectives of these white petit bourgeois scenes; an obvious conclusion is that Larsen paints what she knows. What drawing primers don’t tell you is how to make the subjects of your work interesting. Despite Larsen’s exciting technique, her paintings’ appeal might begin and end with their phenomenological strangeness.