The Brooklyn Rail – Chris Larson With Phong Bui
I’ve followed the artist Chris Larson’s work ever since my visit to the Twin Cities in February 2013 as the McKnight Visiting Critic. Chris was one of the four 2012/2013 McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship recipients. My trip began with a prolonged visit to his immense studio in St. Paul, where he had built a monumental structure which housed interiors made for his video works. The following day we continued our conversation about his life and work at Le Meridien Chambers. Finally, on the occasion of his recent exhibit The Katonah Relocation Project (March 29 – June 28, 2015) at the Katonah Museum of Art, we were able to continue where we left off over two years ago. The following is an edited version of our past and recent conversations.
Phong Bui (Rail): We once had a wonderful conversation about Giacometti’s sculpture, which you first saw when you were an MFAstudent at Yale. I’d like to begin by talking about your experience of one of his late surrealist pieces, “The Invisible Object” (1934 – 35), which is in the collection of Société Anonyme, donated to the Yale University Art Gallery by Katherine Dreier in 1941.
Chris Larson: Otherwise known as “Hands Holding the Void,” the figure suggests a suspended, invisible ball. This suggested movement, as opposed to the static structure that her quasi-geometric figure sits on, creates tension similar to that in my recent work, particularly in subtle happenings in the intimate interiors. Anyway, that piece was very important, especially the board set upon the figure’s feet in relationship to the architecture of its body, and the strange frame. But every object ever made is meant to occupy that empty space held by the two hands. Everything.
Rail: Yet, each part of that sculpture is essential. Do you think there is a degree of awkwardness and terror in that void?
Larson: Yes. And the board on her feet reminds me of Bruce Nauman’s “Slant Step” (1965), which suggests a certain but unnameable function. Similarly, the purpose of the board in “The Invisible Object” is very mysterious, although you could say that it braces not only the figure, but the space itself.
Rail: You may also think of it as a trapping device.
Larson: Yes. You know, Duchamp’s “Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics)” (1920), which is also in the same collection, has the same presence. You see this old motor, and even though it’s unplugged you still feel a sense of danger.
Rail: Definitely. This is an aspect that I sense in your work as well. There is an element of catastrophe, unforeseen destruction. Do you see this as a formal issue, as you just described the trapping of the feet in the Giacometti? Or is it something else?
Larson: Maybe it’s more existential. For example, the piece you saw at the Walker in 2013 was initially a black painting. I then shot it with a shotgun, blasting the surface to reveal what was behind it. Then I scanned it and printed it as a photograph. But, through that transformation, something happened. A similar thing happens in the video piece “Heavy Rotation,” shown in the last Whitney Biennial in 2014, where I drew in circles enough to affect the architecture, I mean the floor is cut out through the rotation and reveals the space below. It’s very physical yet psychological at the same time. Perhaps “The Invisible Object” lives in that similar space.
Rail: There’s definitely a strong relationship between them. It’s an ambiguous space where everything and nothing happens. At any rate, let’s talk about the initial impulse. How and where did it come about? Did it come as a vision or a dream or a thought?
Larson: I work through many of my ideas through my dreams and also in the wee hours of the morning when I am half dreaming, half asleep. It’s a time when my brain is unhinged, anything seems possible, and ideas are unedited. In 2011, I was invited to do a site visit to a new exhibition space called The View in Salenstein, Switzerland for a possible exhibition. The View is a contemporary art space situated in two 100-year-old underground former water reservoirs. As I walked through the reservoir’s underground, I looked up and saw a circular concrete cap in the ceiling leading to the space above. I then walked on top of the reservoir and found the same concrete cap in the earth. I had this great sensation of being in two places at one time, just through that portal. Inside/outside became one space. On the plane ride back to Minnesota, I made a simple sketch of stacked spaces, maybe 10 of them stacked on top of each other with a hole leading down into the next space, connecting them all simultaneously. When I got back to the studio, I started building the rooms stacked on top of each other with the idea that I would activate the space by drawing on the floor and, through this act of drawing, the floor would disintegrate allowing me to pass through to the next space.
Rail: You’re interested in the fluidity of space, not static space.
Larson: Yes, I’m interested in constant motion. That’s why I don’t have chairs in my studio. I’m always walking and moving around.
Rail: Right. How did you manage to make that circular gesture fluid, with some pressure, but not enough to cut a hole in the floor?
Larson: It’s movie magic. I mean, the hole was pre-cut before the paper was placed over it. Then I created the drawing on top of the paper while tabs held the cut-out circle in place. As I signaled to someone below, they pulled a cord and released the tabs.
Rail: Oh, I see. Movie magic!
Larson: But I think you sense that something is building up and about to happen.
Rail: How much did you have to plan ahead? The set itself is so expansive and spatially complex!
Larson: As I built, I acted it out in my head. I’d already played the scenario out in my head so many times, that the space was activated as the action was filmed.
Rail: Was the room intended to be that specific size?
Larson: I think the viewpoint of the camera makes the room seem a little larger than it is. But I wanted it to be a bit less than human size, so you felt that closeness of the space.
Rail: You mean claustrophobia [laughs]. And then when it finally went through to the floor below, when you climbed down on the ladder—
Larson: It’s a room within a wheel. The entire room is rotated upside down.
Rail: Which demonstrates a sense of gravity, and yet there’s a feeling of ephemerality or fragility about things that are unavoidably pulled down by gravity. I’m very curious whether this particular tension arises from earlier influences. In other words, can you speak of your upbringing?
Larson: I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and my family moved to Lake Elmo, a more rural part of Minnesota, when I was in second grade. I lived there until I went to Yale, which was the first time I had ever lived in an urban setting. I think I freaked out a little bit. The first thing I did was bring these gigantic logs into my studio.
Rail: Without knowing why?
Larson: Well, I think I was longing for something other than the urban. I started cutting these logs up with these joints. I was sort of building a brand new tree. Some of them went up on one end, made a circular loop like an arch, and then ended with branches at the bottom. It was made of hemlock pine, maybe three feet around at the base, so it was very heavy. I was afraid that it would just collapse, so I had a post supporting its center. One day, Richard Serra came as a visiting artist; he only spent 15 minutes in any one studio because everyone wanted to see him. As soon as he entered my studio, the gun went off. He said, “Chris, what’s the beam for?” I was like, “well, I don’t know, it’s holding it up.” He said, “pull it out!” I was like, “I can’t, the whole thing—it’s so much weight, I think it’s going to fall.” And he said, “come on.” So we both grabbed it at the bottom and yanked up and the whole piece sunk, then settled into space. Serra looked at me and said, “SAY WHAT YOU MEAN. MEAN WHAT YOU SAY.” Like, don’t mess around. Do what you intend to do.
Rail: In other words, he saw the structure as a prop, an unnecessary element.
Larson: Amazing. He saw right through what was in my head.
Rail: So you felt that was an important moment in which you had to place more trust in yourself?
Larson: That was huge. Don’t mess around. Be very direct. Mean what you say, and say what you mean. And in those days our studios were gigantic. I was in the old Hammond Hall, which was an old factory building. I literally worked 15, 16, 17 hours a day in my studio. It really taught me how to work and how to build a practice to sustain after I left. All of the faculty at that time were part-time. They would come in one or two days a week. The program was heavy on critiques. It was very important to just talk about your work. Then we had a constant flow of visiting artists coming through our studios, especially Robert Gober and Ursula von Rydingsvard, both of whom were very helpful in terms of material, and meaning, and action with the material.
Rail: So you would say that your two years at Yale were fruitful and fundamental to your practice as an artist afterward?
Larson: Absolutely, especially after that encounter with Richard Serra.
Rail: Then once you graduated, you were compelled, unlike most of your classmates who would move to New York to pursue their potential careers in the art world, to go back to St. Paul.
Rail: What was your reason?
Larson: While we were at Yale, we would take the train to New York as often as we could to see shows in galleries and museums. We would also go see artists in their studios. So I had a sense what was going on in New York. There were warehouses just filled with artists, and I found the whole tight-knit community a little overwhelming. I knew coming back to St. Paul I would have lots of both mental and physical space. Yeah, my whole class moved to New York and I came back to St. Paul.
Rail: Did you take any time off between undergrad and grad?
Larson: No. I went straight through, pretty much from grade school to grad school at Yale. No stopping. And it was amazing. As I fell in love with making things, I didn’t stop. I never stopped.
Rail: So what was it like when you came back to St. Paul in—
Larson: ’92. Even as an undergrad in St. Paul, I didn’t have a lot of contact with artists in the area. And I was anxious to get back, get a studio, and see what that felt like. I moved to one of the studios in downtown St. Paul. One of the tenants next door to the studio saw all of my tools and everything and they were like, “keep it down in there, okay?” It was not like, “how do you do? Welcome!” I’ve slowly developed close relationships with artists, but it was hard for the first 10 years.
Rail: When did you have the first impulse to make things?
Larson: It was right when we moved from St. Paul to Lake Elmo, deep in the woods. I would find old farm machinery, a lot of peculiar things that I would invent uses for. A lot of forts and whittling sticks, just manipulating material.
Rail: What about the impulse to make things with monumental scale?
Larson: That probably began when I worked on a farm, bailing hay for a couple of summers. Objects like the silos, or the barns, or the threshers became very monumental for me. As I was bailing, I’d get the sense of the season and things moving from being planted, to cut, to bailed, and then into the barn where the horses would eat and digest them. Then the cycle would start over again. Slow, but monumental. I should mention that I got a travel grant from Yale before I left. Peter Schjeldahl was on the committee and he really liked these machines I was making at the time. He said, go find these things, the real things. So as soon as I was given the money to travel, I headed to Scandinavia looking for these machines, mechanical devices, wooden contraptions, and so on.
Rail: Early structures.
Larson: Before the Industrial Revolution.
Rail: I assume that you find formal beauty in those structures.
Larson: I do. Actually, I got a book on them (Bernd and Hilla Becher: Pennsylvania Coal Mine Tipples [1991, Dia Center for the Arts]), where I learned how they were built quickly by coalmine bootleggers. They were there to collect leftover scraps of the coal. They would go in with whatever material they could get—tree branches and boards and stuff—so there’s this sense of urgency and necessity. They’re not trimming off edges to make things flush. It’s not about—
Larson: Yes. It’s about getting the coal out as fast as they can. And I absolutely love those structures. And I still have to remind myself: “don’t cut, there’s energy in things [when] they are raw and imperfect.” In fact, when I was making “Unnamed,” a bridge-like form that was severely smashed on each end, people would say, “Oh, it looks like you must have just whacked at it.” But it was very slow. One of the crew members at the Walker said that all the wild dip and splashing on de Kooning’s paintings was all rehearsed and intentional.
Rail: It’s human touch that separates one from another. De Kooning knew what was his. I’m also curious about how, in addition to your appetite for big forms, you seem to find equal pleasure in making small things like those minute, delicate architectural forms that you are making now in the small studio.
Larson: Those came out of paying attention to what happens as I’m doing something else. As I built the larger sets, things would be activated in the studio that I would normally just sweep up. But I felt there was energy in them, so I began to make these architectural floor plans out of plaster and then very simple little, tiny, minute actions carved out of plaster: little tiny plaster boards, smaller than tooth picks.
Rail: Which reminds me of Giacometti’s “No More Play” (1932).
Larson: I love those early Giacomettis! And I found the more I took things out, the bigger the room became.
Rail: Like the “Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)” (2001) video installation where the energy is all taking place on the floor.
Larson: I agree.
Rail: Now that you’ve made monolithic pieces that were very controlled, assimilated into different spaces, don’t you think that with this structure, which is constructed with different spaces that serve different functions, you should consider it a new challenge for the work—pushing both monumentality and intimacy at once for the first time?
Larson: I think so. I also know that if I don’t move, nothing happens. I’ve spent this last year moving around in my studio and making things. Even though a lot fails, it’s enough to know that I’m moving. If the pen never moves, nothing gets written, right?
Rail: And the acceptance of failure.
Rail: Your last book was entitled Failure.
Larson: [Laughs.] Yeah that was sort of tongue-in-cheek but still very true, yes.
Rail: I’d like to return to where we left off in my last visit to your studio in St. Paul, which essentially generated our conversation about fragility and strength of the void, how its negative power can suggest potential images yet, without the implications of the positive space, means very little. Only a few months after that conversation, you undertook the rebuilding of a Marcel Breuer house—one of the 100 houses that he built in Minnesota in addition to one of his masterpieces, St. John’s Abbey Church at the campus of Saint John’s University (1961)—only to set it on fire before thousands of spectators outside the Union Depot, along the Mississippi river front. Could you tell us your motivation for doing such a monumental project?
Larson: The project initially started as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Breuer house located on the bluff of the Mississippi river just three miles from my studio. I first learned about Breuer in 1986, when my sculpture professor took our class on a field trip to see the church for St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota designed by Breuer. Stunning interior space! My interest in architecture and Breuer deepened while studying with Vincent Scully at Yale University in 1990. More recently, I was talking with a curator about Breuer and she said, “you know, Breuer designed a house just down the river from your studio.” I went to visit the house and immediately knew that someday I would do a project based on it. I would later learn that Marcel Breuer built this house for Frank Kacmarcik, a monk he met and became good friends with while designing and building the church at St. John’s Abbey. In 2013, for the Northern Spark festival, I rebuilt the Breuer house to scale, installed it in downtown St. Paul, and then burned it down. The act of burning down the house was to see what was beyond Modern building. Fields are burned down in the spring in order to germinate new growth in the soil. I saw the burning/destruction of the Breuer replica not as an act of mourning, but as an act of hope.
Rail: As one thing dies another is born. It’s a natural cycle for sure. Anyway, having just seen your current exhibition, the Katonah Relocation Project, I felt there were several surprise elements that tied this new body of work to the previous one referencing Breuer, out of which a certain concern and continuity has evolved. For example, the huge structure that you built as a set for the video “Heavy Rotation” in your studio was re-adapted on a smaller scale for the museum’s interior space. Can you share with us how you came up with the concept and logistical strategy for the exhibit? Oh, not to mention the room filled with objects made out of soap?
Larson: About a year ago, Darsie Alexander, Executive Director at the Katonah Museum of Art, called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing a project outside the Barnes-designed museum in Katonah, New York. Darsie and I had worked together on a site-specific exhibition while she was chief curator at the Walker Art Center; another Barnes-designed building built in the early ’70s. I looked up Katonah online and the first thing that came up was a New York Timesarticle that read “Destruction to Katonah.” I knew I had a project, and flew out to do a site visit. I initially planned a site-specific sculpture in the sculpture garden but, as I got deeper into researching the strange and fascinating history of Katonah and Barnes’s connection to Katonah—and excited by the energy of the approaching 25th anniversary of the KMA—Darsie decided that the project needed to expand into the entire museum. I was thrilled. The project took so many twists and turns and I appreciated the tremendous amount of trust and support that Darsie gave me with this project. Although I worked on this project the entire year and built a room full of sculptures for the exhibition, I decided to start over with only a month before the opening of the show. I called Darsie and told her about a dream I had about the gallery space and said that I wanted to make a new video and installation for the exhibition. She loved the idea and said go for it!
Rail: So it again refers to the idea of inside/outside becoming one space.
Larson: Exactly. This project also relates to two interwoven stories emerging from the history of the town of Katonah. Both relate to the idea of relocation and displacement. On May 5, 1703, Chief Katonah, on behalf of the Munsee tribe who inhabited parts of the county at the time, sold their land to Zachariah Roberts of Bedford for two gallons of rum, four pounds of gunpowder, four hatchets, five coats, two blankets, six shirts, and 10 pieces of eight, or Spanish pesos. This transfer of goods for land was the first of several exchanges and agreements. Katonah is now one of the most affluent communities in the country with residents such as Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren, and billionaire George Soros. Nearly two centuries later, New York City authorities condemned and purchased a parcel of land that would become the Cross River Reservoir, a major source of drinking water for the metropolis. A headline from an 1893 article in the New York Timesreads: “Destruction to Katonah, Mr. Daly Orders its Removal from the Face of the Earth.” Rather than accept the destruction of their town, the residents of Katonah came together to move more than 50 of their buildings out of the condemned area using horses to drag the buildings along soap-timbered tracks to the current location of the town. The work on view in the Sculpture Garden is a full-scale replica of Edward Larrabee Barnes’s private home from Mount Kisco, just south of Katonah. It sits upon wooden cribbing that echoes the materials used to relocate Katonah for the reservoir project, and wraps around the 100-year-old pine trees that dot the area. In my continuing interest in the re-sighting of public and private architectural spaces, this work finds a new home amidst nature; inside the house moss grows in one of the bedrooms rooms, and objects inspired by those traded by the colonists appear as soap sculptures in the bathroom/kitchen area. In this way, time periods and histories collapse, bringing together the natural and the architectural, the personal and the public.
Rail: Does the impulse to replicate Barnes’s house among and around the tree trunks outside of the museum refer to the punctured holes in the video “Heavy Rotation?”
Larson: Ah, yes, the trees fill the void. I realized the connection to “Heavy Rotation” after we cut the holes in the floor to accommodate the 100-year-old white pine trees. The intent of piercing the trees through the house was to entangle the clean lines of modernism in nature, disrupting the symmetry for which Barnes was known. The trees connect all that is below to all that is above just as the holes did in the video “Heavy Rotation.”
Rail: Has your concept or reception of space changed at all after this exhibit?
Larson: The most significant change is in the way I approach my video work. I started out as a sculptor and I still consider myself first and foremost a sculptor in the way I use video and photography. Years ago, when I started using film and video in my work, the camera was used to film the objects and spaces that I built. Now I am building spaces and objects based on what I see though the eye of the camera.
ST. PAUL — At 2:15 a.m. Sunday, Chris Larson set fire to Chad Bogdan’s home. Or something that looked a lot like it. The two-bedroom house was unoccupied at the time. Mr. Larson had just finished assembling it a few hours earlier, on a vacant lot.
No apparent rancor existed between the men. Mr. Larson, a 46-year-old art professor at the University of Minnesota, had recently discussed the sale of an original drawing to Mr. Bogdan, 40, an industrial design executive.
When the fire started, Mr. Bogdan was milling about in a crowd of thousands outside the Union Depot, along the Mississippi riverfront. The mood was festive: A ragtag pep squad marched by humming “We Didn’t Start the Fire” on kazoos. It was the night of the dusk-to-dawn cultural frolic called Northern Spark. And for this year’s edition, arson was the main event.
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slideshow Up in FlamesJUNE 9, 2013
First, a tube of smoke spiraled out of the house. A moment later, the roof was on fire. By the time the walls started collapsing, the conflagration may have been close to 2,000 degrees, or so said the guy on the fire truck, and he should know.
The building shouldn’t have burned so quickly. It was one of about 100 homes drafted by the well-known Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, who later designed the Whitney Museum of American Art. And as a matter of taste, he had specified incombustible materials: white concrete block for the walls, red ceramic tile for the floors.
But Mr. Larson had cut some corners when he was following the original 1961 blueprints. He had made the walls and roof out of cardboard and two-by-four studs. Working with a crew of two laborers, a country-western singer and an erstwhile horoscope writer, he had completed the building in a month.
Once the scene ended, Mr. Bogdan said he planned to enjoy a few slugs of club soda and “potato juice” (presumably vodka). He had adopted a stoic line. “At the beginning, I took it personally,” he said of the fire. “But this has nothing to do with me.”
It was late. Soon he would be bundling his wife and older son into their Land Rover and returning — get this — to the same white house, a few miles downriver.
To be clear, there were two Breuer houses, identical twins: a 50-year-old exemplar of high modernism and a stunt double that Mr. Larson had devised for the night’s bonfire. The first was intact and standing where Mr. Bogdan had left it earlier that evening. The second, as everyone could see, was on its way to becoming ash.
Something profoundly weird had just happened. Lacking another word, Mr. Bogdan called it art. Why had someone chosen to clone such a distinguished home only to destroy it?
Earlier in the evening, Mr. Larson’s response to the crowd’s pressing question had been to hide inside the house. His wife, Kriss Zulkosky, explained that this wasn’t the first piece of art he had set fire to. Now and again, he burned his own hand-hewn sculptures — gargantuan and monstrous machines — in the backyard. Friends would drop by for beer and barbecue.
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“It’s a gesture,” Mr. Larson said, in a tidy bit of understatement.
Then he expanded a little on the nature of material. The shiny, finished object, be it a car or a mansion, was inert, tedious to the eye, dead. Demolition freed up the energy trapped in the materials. “There’s some potential in that action,” he said.
Mr. Larson could have been paraphrasing the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (“The death of fire is birth for air”) or just exercising his tongue. Pressing him to explain why he creates and obliterates houses ultimately seemed like asking the photographer Cindy Sherman why she takes so many pictures of herself. It’s what he does.
So let the building tell the story.
Marcel Breuer’s little white box had a colorful history before Mr. Larson ever got his hands on the blueprints. Breuer, a Jewish émigré from Hungary, sketched the house as a favor to a Catholic liturgical artist and future monk named Frank Kacmarcik. The pair had collaborated on the glorious Abbey Church and 2,500-ton concrete bell banner, at Saint John’s University, 75 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
The architectural historian Larry Millett included the Kacmarcik house in his magisterial “AIA Guide to the Twin Cities,” but he also possesses an intimate acquaintance with Breuer’s blockhouse brutalism. “I went to Saint John’s,” he said. “And I lived in Breuer’s dorms, which I believe were designed to mortify the flesh.”
The austere house in St. Paul is cut from a similar cloth, Mr. Millett said — that being, perhaps, a hair shirt. “You have to be someone who likes that rather minimalist aesthetic,” he said. “It’s not a bright, deeply colorful house.”
The original design program, as specified by Mr. Kacmarcik, was unapologetically spartan. “I would be very happy if this could be conceived very basically, a barn to live in, with the simplest solutions possible,” he wrote at the time.
Breuer complied. By the time he drafted rough plans for Mr. Kacmarcik’s residence, the Bauhaus virtuoso had already completed major projects like the Unesco headquarters in Paris. A 2,000-square-foot house was a minor distraction. He waived his firm’s fee.
And yet to his client, the house represented a major investment. “I realize these requests are much like that which would be characteristic of a lord of a manor,” he wrote to the architect. “But my budget is for a tent.”
At least the house, which sits on nearly two acres of secluded bluff land, enjoyed what a real estate agent might call a million-dollar view. From the windows at the end of each room, you can see Pig’s Eye Lake, the Mississippi River Valley and the skylines of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a dozen miles away.
Paradoxically, this elevation also means that one of the best-pedigreed homes in the area can rarely be seen from anywhere but a river barge — not a convenient stop on a parade of homes.
Mr. Bogdan spotted the Breuer house almost by chance: the corner of a white box, peeking above the green tree canopy. A design job, managing the outdoor living line at Target, had brought him and his family from Chelsea to the wilds of St. Paul. “It was weird that it was in our neighborhood,” he said, a month before the big burn. “I wanted to know who the architect was.”
Mr. Kacmarcik had long since decamped to the Benedictine monastery at Saint John’s, and the current owner was an architecture curator, Christopher Monkhouse (a surname that must be proof of divine intervention). Mr. Bogdan left an anonymous fan note in the mailbox.
Kate Bogdan, 38, was sitting next to her husband on the comfortably stuffed sofa, revising his timeline as he spoke. “You were totally stalking it before you wrote the letter,” she said.
Mr. Bogdan admitted, “Yeah, I was stalking it.”
He was in London on business the day the call came. Mr. Monkhouse was moving to Chicago and the house would be going on the market.
Ms. Bogdan said, “I was excited to tell him.”
Her husband countered: “But you were cool. It was like, ‘I heard from your stalker house, and you’re never going to guess who the architect is.’ I could tell it was going to be big.”
Vindication! His eye had attracted him to the genuine article: a Breuer design. “Sometimes I’d drive by before work and after work,” he said.
How many times?
“Dozens,” he said. “Sometimes I’d come sit in the backyard.”
He thought about this for a moment, then said, “That sounds so creepy.”
Ms. Bogdan nodded sympathetically. “It’s creepy, but it’s true. You had a relationship with the house.”
The couple bought the property in 2007 for $525,000. Cheap for a Breuer, but nonetheless a stretch to afford. And since they moved in, the home’s idiosyncrasies have not been easy on their finances. Every piece of replacement hardware seems to be nonstandard, and twice the usual price.
The spec list was part of a thick packet that Mr. Monkhouse left for the new owners: holiday letters between Mr. Breuer and Mr. Kacmarcik, site plans, blueprints. Mr. Bogdan shared these with Mr. Larson to make the reproduction possible.
And yet their relationship hadn’t started so well. While Mr. Larson was formulating the project, he had cased the empty house, taking some rough measurements. Rumor of the planned arson reached Mr. Bogdan before the two men spoke.
Mr. Bogdan admitted that he did not instantly understand Mr. Larson’s overtures. “I thought, why did he invite me to his studio? Is he going to beat me up or something?”
After having the artist and his wife to dinner, though, Mr. Bogdan discovered, “He’s such a lovely guy. He’s not a pyromaniac.”
Despite its heritage, the house has been neglected in books on Breuer. The burn presented the opportunity for the Bogdans to earn it some respect. Ms. Bogdan, a former event planner, catered a benefit party for Northern Spark, bringing a small flock of gallerists to tour the house.
The ascetic interior space may not ingratiate itself with you. But by now, their two boys, Jack, 9, and Will, 5, have formed a warm relationship with the cool concrete bunker. When the family recently toured an ornate Tudor Revival home, Jack was heard to declare, “It isn’t my type.”
Pressed by his father to elaborate, he said, “White is a good color for a house.”
Chris Larson’s studio occupies the back of a mattress warehouse, on a bland but busy commercial corridor, next to a dollar store and a beauty school. And the salvage stored within suggests that Mr. Larson has long taken an apocalyptic view toward architecture. Pry open an eight-foot crate and you can see the cedar facsimile that he built of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex. Another work, from 2004, titled “Pause,” crashed an 18-foot-long wood model of the General Lee (the ’69 Dodge Charger from “The Dukes of Hazzard”) into a replica of the Montana cabin of the Unabomber.
Yet Mr. Larson’s appetites go beyond destruction, to ritual and religion. Until a few years ago, he was the frontman for a country gospel group called the House of Mercy Band, with a steady gig at his church’s Sunday service.
For one installation, he coaxed a family gospel group, the Spiritual Knights, to pose around a formal dining table, recreating the cover of a Mahalia Jackson album, “Bless This House.” He then lodged the room (and the surrounding two-story house) on a pontoon platform and floated it across an empty lake. He borrowed the title of the piece, “Crush Collision,” from an 1896 publicity stunt, when a crowd of 30,000 flocked to the temporary city of Crush, Tex., to watch two locomotives collide. On impact, the steam boilers exploded, throwing shrapnel into the crowd and killing two.
The Breuer house, too, was meant to float — up the Mississippi, on two barges. Mr. Larson never expected the Northern Spark organizers to embrace the plan. “It seemed so absurd and outlandish,” he said.
A $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts buoyed his hopes. But after months of negotiations with barge-company executives, the Coast Guard and the fire department, the proposal hit rough water and sank.
At this point, Northern Spark offered to relocate his Norse funeral pyre to an empty lot outside the old rail station. This was just as well, as Mr. Larson had concluded his original plot was insane. “I didn’t realize the enormity of the scale,” he said.
He knew that he wanted to fashion each wall as a wood-and-cardboard panel. These units would need to come apart easily, like K’nex, and then snap back together on site. But he was accustomed to doing his carpentry without measurements. “If I’m off by an inch, I’m pretty good,” he said. “It’s kind of rogue architecture.”
Breuer’s plans, by contrast, were exacting. To execute them, Mr. Larson enlisted a friend from church, Forest Lewis, who published absurdist horoscopes when he wasn’t doing construction jobs like barn-raising.
A deeper riddle would be how far to take the finish to achieve verisimilitude. Mr. Larson imagined the reproduction looking like an architect’s foamcore model, blown up to actual size. But would it resemble a house? He started to realize, “All the small details are so important with Breuer.”
The critic Mr. Millett, who is writing a book on Minnesota’s midcentury homes, notes that “full-bore International Style houses tended to have antiseptic white exteriors and surfaces. Obviously there’s no ornament. The idea was to display volume rather than structure. It’s all about solids and voids.”
Put another way, even in its original form, the Breuer house looks like a couple of plain white boxes squashed together. The experience is to be inside the box and feel the geometry, sort of like moving through the torqued cylinders of the sculptor Frank Serra.
Is it healthy to exalt a house — the place where you cook linguine and fold laundry — as a piece of art?
One skeptic is Mr. Lewis, 32, the rare home remodeler who cites French cultural theory and delivers the occasional lay sermon. “There’s spectacle involved,” he said of the fire. “But because it’s the Breuer house” — that is, practically a holy shrine for shelter magazines — “I think it has to do with idolatry on some level.”
You could ogle the idealized images in a magazine, the way you would a Photoshopped supermodel, and Mr. Lewis confessed that he liked to do that sometimes. Or you could erect the cleanest, whitest dream home and then smash your idol.
Mr. Larson was planning something more than an ordinary house fire. He aspired to an inferno. To this end, he had hired a company called Hollywood Pyrotechnics Inc. to string up baggies full of denatured alcohol as an accelerant. And a custom print shop had donated a few tons of scrap paper (obsolete business cards, defective wedding invitations) to stuff the shell with kindling.
“I want to burn it so fast there’s no time to mourn it,” Mr. Larson said.
But then, for all the artist’s labors, it wasn’t his house. Mr. Bogdan had originally found it hard to get his head around annihilation. “It’s not a pleasant thing to see the capsule with everything that means the most to you in flames,” he said. But with a cup of potato juice for courage, and his wife and older son safe at hand, he declared himself ready.
A parade of onlookers circled the perimeter of the house for hours, in a kind of funeral procession, tapping on the cardboard walls and posing for trophy photos. But this crowd wasn’t exactly mourning the death of high modernism.
A typical heckler was Dr. Sarah Kesler, 42, of Minneapolis. “Thank God they’re going to burn it,” she said, “because it’s ugly and depressing. It’s a good example of a place I wouldn’t want to live in.”
You could say one man’s crowd is another man’s mob. For a time, Mr. Larson helped his crew of friends and art students slash diamond-shaped ventilation holes in the walls and ceiling. But before long, he was huddling in a small, enclosed chamber, or what would have been the mechanical room. “It feels really decadent,” he said. “I wish we could do it without the crowd.”
An assistant came by to ask where to stash the first wood pallets — more kindling. “Start in the kids’ bedroom,” he said, and then added, “That sounds awful.”
Mr. Larson retreated further into the chiaroscuro made by Breuer’s walls. “I just realized it’s like I’ve created my very own Crush Collision,” he said, referring to the railroad publicity stunt that turned into a catastrophe. The art had ended at seven o’clock when the final piece of cardboard went up on the wall. What remained, for Mr. Larson, was circus.
And so it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that at 2:15 a.m., Mr. Bogdan and his family were standing alone in the crowd on the train platform outside the depot, keeping the vigil for Breuer and what he had imagined. Mr. Larson had already pulled away in his black truck. He was thinking about going home, he said, or maybe to a bar.
By the time the fire department hosed down the embers around 3 a.m., Mr. Larson was safely back in his studio. There was a lot of potential in the new empty space.
Whitney Museum of Art – Chris Larson
Magnus Müller Temporary – Chris Larson
MN Artists – In Heavy Rotation
Art historian Sheila Dickinson grapples with art, transformation and ethics-in-action, inside the studio and out, by way of Chris Larson’s mind-bending work.
March 23, 2015
I recently heard a story on the radio about a man who realized he was stuck in his life, crippled by a fear of failure. Determined to make a change, he set out to fail, every day at least once. One day he might approach a stranger in a store and ask that person to drive him somewhere — a request that would surely, most of the time, leave him rejected. His theory, I suppose, is that the more he acclimates himself to small-stakes rejection and failure, the less scary it will feel when he takes a chance in pursuit of something he really wants.
His story makes me think of this: The barriers between the now and some hypothetical future are merely mental fabrications. Our sense of being, right now, is always in flux; each moment is moving into something, someplace different — transforming again and again, always becoming. We might establish routines and rituals in attempts to stabilize the constant ebb and flow of time, but the novelty of each moment provides humans endless opportunities for change — and for failure.
I feel like I should offer a spoiler alert of some kind at this point. I really don’t want to tell you much of what happens in Chris Larson’s Heavy Rotation video work; I’m reluctant to ruin the freshness of your confusion when you first see it. So, proceed at your own risk.
Sitting in a small viewing room at the Walker, I keep second-guessing the content of what I see on screen. Larson’s video begins with a view from above as the artist nails four wooden plinths into the floor in the shape of a square, and then one more directly in its center. He pours black paint on one side of the central plinth. Then Larson begins to turn the central piece quickly, creating a black circle within the frame. The reference in the work’s title, Heavy Rotation, is suddenly clear: records, music, repeated playing. He’s turning it, turning quickly, until the bottom of the frame literally falls out! Larson grabs a ladder and proceeds to climb down the hole he has made into — what, the exact same room? He grabs the camera with which he’s filming all this and carries it with him down the ladder into a space that looks just like the studio from which he just came. The same tools are there, a very similar set-up as in the first scene. He puts down the camera and begins the process all over again: hammering the plinths into a square, making the black circle, turning the central plinth. And afterward, there he goes, down the rabbit hole again, following after the black circle as it clanks down into yet another room just below. But a couple of things in this third studio look different. It’s not quite as messy as the first two. This time, the artist just leaves, walks out the door of the studio. And when he’s gone, instead of the black paint swirling around in a circle, the entire structure of the studio begins to rotate, tilting upward. The tools, shelves, ladder, phone, everything slides to one end of the room and then, slowly, comes to rest back down again. The end.
I walk out of the viewing room and happen to run into a former art student of mine who is now a guard at the Walker. I ask what she thought of Larson’s video. She tells me Larson came to talk to her class one day, but that she still found the work confusing. I concur. I ask, “But the whole studio is moving in the video, right?” “Right,” she says.
I try to look at other art, but my head is elsewhere, still trying to figure out what just happened. I’ve got to go back.
So, I return. And I sit through another loop of the video, with the idea that if I can make sense of the logistics, Larson’s piece won’t puzzle me so much. The clichéd comparison that springs to mind is MC Escher. And the experience of watching Heavy Rotation is somewhat like looking at an Escher drawing where people walk on double-sided staircases, begging the viewer to turn the image and watch dimensions disappear. This coalescence of dimensions is the trippy part of the artwork that gets you hooked and returning for more. But the tease, the playful tension in prompting the viewer to always question, “Hey, what’s going on here?,” is just clever bait. This fun, if somewhat superficial, drama is most likely the main source of Heavy Rotation’s popularity; the work was chosen for inclusion in both the Whitney Biennial and Crystal Bridges State of the Art exhibition, then purchased for the Walker collection. But the real hook in Larson’s piece, the thing that keeps the viewer thinking about the video long after the trippy visuals have lost their punch, is the preponderance of bigger, heavier conceptual content behind the tease — about cycles, transformation, instability, and possibilities of progress.
His entry into the canvas, stepping through the wooden square frame he creates on the floor of his studio, is emblematic of art as transformation. But this transformative experience is stunted when, at the climactic moment of his passage into a new space, he finds himself in essentially the same room, performing the same actions, repeating himself as an artist. Aesthetically stuck in the studio, he has no choice but to leave, to walk out into something else — to enter lived experience and change it up, take drastic measures, and make the studio itself move and change.
We are witnessing an artist’s traumatic aesthetic upheaval from static formalism — constructing objects that hold together and sit obediently in the white cube space — to the deconstruction of all those conventional modes of making and showing work. Larson follows in the steps of a litany of other artists’ ruminations about what to do in and with the artist studio experience. I’m reminded of Bruce Nauman’s early video work, where the camera watches him walk awkwardly around a square taped to the floor (Nauman’s video Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, 1967 is also in the Walker collection). And can hear Nauman’s manifesto-like quote: “If I am an artist and I am in my studio, then whatever I do in my studio is art” ringing in my ear. Larson takes Nauman’s notion of even further, as Heavy Rotation follows the artist as he walks out of the door and into the world beyond. The implication is what the artist does outside the studio is also art.
Chris Larson has put the concept of transformation via destruction front and center in his work before. Earlier pieces have, like Heavy Rotation, pushed against the boundaries of the studio experience. Celebration/Love/Loss was Larson’s contribution to the 2013 Northern Spark, a nuit blanche all-night art festival geared to make the most of the short nights and long days of the Minnesota summer. With non-durable materials, cardboard and wood, Larson built a life-size, exact replica of the only Marcel Breuer designed residence in Minnesota; the original sits in the Mississippi River bluffs of St. Paul’s East Side. Resituated in a field beside the train track-lined river in downtown St. Paul, the reimagined, cardboard duplicate of Breuer house was set aflame during the festival. At 2 a.m., the made-for-destruction building was ignited as a crowd gathered to watch the fiery performance — a bonfire of sorts. Bonfires, for centuries, have marked the passing of the seasons: marking time, celebrating the transformations of death into life that cycle over and over again in nature. Like Heavy Rotation, Celebration/Love/Loss was large and dramatic, intent on confusing the viewer into wondering about the true state of things. The insanity of it all draws us in.
Before Larson’s project for Northern Spark, few knew of Breuer’s architectural gem in St. Paul. Larson himself learned about it only a few years beforehand, despite a childhood spent in its proximity. Breuer is best known for his extraordinary modernist spiritual statement, St. John’s Abbeyat St. John’s University in northern Minnesota. While there, Breuer befriended a monk, Frank Kacmarcik, and created the modest St. Paul residence for him as gift. Designed with a simple L-shaped floor plan, the house was built using only three materials: cinder block, cypress wood ceilings, and tile flooring. Two wall-size windows offer views of the Mississippi and downtown St. Paul — high culture in a Midwestern, second-tier city. It’s true international Modernist architecture, but it’s not in the art history books and largely irrelevant in Breuer’s oeuvre.
What does it mean that Larson painstakingly, to the inch, reconstructed Breuer’s house, only to burn it down? Is it an homage? A testament, perhaps, to a failure of contemporary building habits to embrace modernist change? Or, is it, as the artist attests, really about rebirth, transformative change? Is it intended to lay the ground for change, for progress?
The art historian in me wants to push this notion into the realm of aesthetics, to see Larson’s gesture as a tearing down of the sort of capital-M-Modernism that ostracized the provinces and obliterated the relevance of local, folk, or historical visual expressions in favor of formal abstraction.Celebration/Love/Loss could be seen as a symbolic obliteration and rebirth of Modernism itself — burning it in effigy and then reaching into history to resituate its symbol in a beyond-modernism present, reconstituting its relevance for the future visual art, here, reborn from the ash.
And out of that ash social relevance is born! An unlikely and unconventional artistic journey has taken the St. Paul Breuer house to Kenya to be reconstructed yet again, this time out of the original, durable materials at which point it will be put to use housing a health clinic for a remote African village. This iteration of the project is the work of Michael Kimpur, cofounder of the Daylight Center and School in Kapenguri, Kenya, who teamed up with a fellow Bethel University graduate Nathan Roberts, who in turn connected with Chris Larson, another Bethel grad. Together they envision a clean, open and inviting space from which to offer children life-altering medical attention close to home. (Now, it’s an hour-long journey to the nearest town for those in need of physicians’ care.)
This collaboration brings to Larson’s Northern Spark experiment an incredible, tangible beauty that goes beyond aesthetics and into an ethics that breathes life into art extending far beyond the studio cube.
Related exhibition information:
Chris Larson’s Heavy Rotation is on view as part of the exhibition, Art at the Center, at Walker Art Center through December 31, 2016.
Sheila Dickinson is an art critic and art historian based in St. Paul. She wrote regularly for Circa Art Magazine in Ireland and for Quodlitbetica, and she currently writes for Mn Artists and Temporary Art Review. She teaches in the Art History Department at the University of St. Thomas.
Chris Larson has never been kind to architecture. In fact, the St. Paul artist’s whole M.O. is to brutalize buildings.
He has blasted them with shotguns. He has dropped cars and aircraft through their roofs. He has drenched them in water and left them out in the winter to freeze. Remember when the Northern Spark festival ventured to St. Paul, in 2013? Larson’s the guy who built a life-size replica of a Marcel Breuer-designed house — only to blast it with pyrotechnics at 1 a.m. Sculpturally speaking, the guy is a sadist, treating physical environments like bugs he’ll tear the legs off.
So now that Larson’s doing opera, you think he’s going to change?
This weekend at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, Larson, with coproducing help and a commission from Walker Art Center, opens “Wise Blood,” a 90-minute opera based on Flannery O’Connor’s debut novel. The project comes with a pedigree-logged list of collaborators. Larson’s roommate at Yale, Brooklyn composer Anthony Gatto, wrote the music and libretto; beloved Open Eye Theater founder Michael Sommers is directing, and the musicians include Juilliard-trained tenor Martin Bakari and Holly Hansen, singer of Twin Cities grunge-pop band Zoo Animal.
But of course, Larson’s greatest collaborator — and aesthetic soul sister — is O’Connor herself.
She is the great, gleefully grotesque Southern Gothic writer, Catholic and very dark. Larson is our Northern prairieland poet, Lutheran and quietly warped.
What: An opera/art installation based on the Flannery O’Connor novel, by visual artist Chris Larson and composer Anthony Gatto.
The opera: 8 p.m. June 4-7 and June 11-14. $40.
The exhibit: Installation and sound design is open 1-7 p.m. Wed.-Fri. and noon-5 p.m. Sun. through June 14. Free.
Where: Soap Factory, 514 SE. 2nd St., Mpls.
O’Connor is famed for a wry, rustic meanness, writing about crooks, frauds, serial killers, shyster preachers — “good country people” who are anything but. Larson is famed for destroying, often literally, the icons of bucolic farmland nostalgia.
Both are compelling for their hidden deviousness. Both tend to rip apart assumptions of agrarian innocence. Both spill guts, of the human and architectural varieties, onto the floor. O’Connor and Larson: It is a match made — well, not in heaven, but in some surreal backwoods hell.
Actor Jason Paul Andrews (back), tenor Martin Bakare and baritone Brian Major rehearsed “Wise Blood” at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis.
Actor Jason Paul Andrews (back), tenor Martin Bakare and baritone Brian Major rehearsed “Wise Blood” at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis.
Broken people, broken God
“Look at this … ”
Chris Larson tucks his hands in his pockets and rocks back on his heels, leaning against a prop bed suspended almost vertically on a wall. Only it’s not a wall. It’s the floor. We’re standing in a life-size country bedroom, tipped wildly on its side. It’s like a dollhouse kicked into the corner — decapitated, roofless, its open ceiling facing out into the audience, an aerial perspective where a window should be.
Larson mimes like he’s snoozing, then nods to a nearby projection screen. There, a live video stream of the room rights the topsy-turviness. Suddenly, he is asleep in the bed. I’m somehow standing nearby on the wall.
“See?” Larson said. “In the frame of the camera, the world makes sense.”
The entire set of “Wise Blood” is like this: all illusion and impossible spaces, steeped in rustic spookiness. M.C. Escher meets “True Detective,” Season 1.
There’s an apartment, bathed in misty white paint, that appears to recede toward infinity, its one room tapering to a vanishing point on the horizon. (Larson tells me the character living inside will grow and shrink as he moves through the space.) There’s a church tacked vertically to the wall, its pews like a horizontal row of artist Donald Judd’s famous boxes. There’s a skeletal white house with its top ripped upward, like a marshmallow being pulled apart.
The set satisfies as a stand-alone installation. (Indeed, the Soap Factory has opened “Wise Blood” as a concurrent art show.) Strewn forlornly throughout the building’s raw industrial space, the sculptures feel like torture victims, prisoners left chained in a dungeon. Larson’s plan is to “activate” these broken spaces with equally broken actors. The opera’s cast includes a combat veteran with PTSD, a prostitute, a manic zookeeper, a mummified dwarf and a man in a gorilla suit.
Baritone Brian Major performed a scene during rehearsal. Gatto said the music is “the sound of gospel.”
Baritone Brian Major performed a scene during rehearsal. Gatto said the music is “the sound of gospel.”
“Most of the spaces are smashed and damaged,” he said. “Unhinged. And most of the characters in ‘Wise Blood’ are the same — damaged souls in search of something.”
He said he reads O’Connor’s novel — about an atheist World War II vet who returns home to Tennessee to spread a gospel of anti-religion — not as a tale of screwed-up souls running from God’s big-tent salvation. As Larson sees it, God is the one who’s screwed up — and he’s the one that is doing the chasing.
“I read and understand it as a broken God seeking out a broken people,” he says, channeling the religiously cryptic O’Connor. “God is constantly pursuing the protagonist, and the protagonist can’t stand it.”
‘Where you are is no good’
Gatto doesn’t go in much for the Jesus stuff. At least not in his reading of O’Connor, whom he thinks is viewed shortsightedly as only a “Catholic writer.”
“There’s this great line in the novel,” the composer said. “ ‘The misery he had was a longing for home. It had nothing to do with Jesus.’ ”
Whereas Larson is quiet and cryptic, Gatto, his old Yale buddy, is all cerebral energy, East Coast-ing his way, articulately and energetically, through a storm of ideas.
“To me the story is about finding a place in this mess called the modern world. It’s an American story. You get kicked out. You leave. ‘Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.’ ”
If Gatto seems to have O’Connor’s prose memorized, it’s because he pretty much does. The libretto that accompanies his score — performed by a roving 13-piece brass band that will trail the audience through the galleries — is composed entirely of text lifted verbatim from the 1952 novel.
“Wise Blood,” for Gatto, is all about displacement, a horrific unmooring, getting marooned and spiritually ransacked in the wasteland. As such, the musical mood he creates is forlorn and eerie, but also steeped in Americana. He calls it “an American sound, the sound of the gospel” — preachers with microphones, the brass band, a heavy dose of “second-lining,” the New Orleans jazz tradition of trailing a parade with troupes of handkerchief- and parasol-twirling dancers.
Like Larson’s puzzle-box set, Gatto promises surprise and illusion.
“The thrust of the opera is definitely things being not what they seem,” he said. “Underneath it all is something dark and seedy.”
And O’Connor would have it no other way. “There are all kinds of truth,” she once said. “But behind them all is only one truth: and that is that there’s no truth.”
Walker Art Center – Chris Larson Open Studio Talk
“I want to bring forsaken ruins to life. I build colossal wooden machines that seem to have existed and functioned at one time. As I begin to build these machines, I start with the problem of what this particular machine is trying to produce. As I build the wheels, gears, and grinders to explore or fix this problem, more questions are laid out – questions that are suspended between the past and the future, creating a slippage in time. I want the viewer to ask certain questions of the sculpture: What is or what was it? What does or did it do? Why was it put here? The viewer may attempt, through intuition or logic, to answer these questions, but they are only left with degrees of speculation. The meaning is not derived from the answers to these questions – meaning is derived from asking these questions.”
Chris Larson (born 1966, Minnesota) explores a purely sculptural moment and the suggestion of movement in static form. Using rough-hewn timbers to produce monumental sculptures, he works alone – no small feat since his works are often massive – and uses no preliminary drawings. Larson’s sculptures directly confront the medium. Working quickly and intuitively, he produces “machines” that seem to be echoes from the Middle Ages, when alchemists attempted inventions that would transform one material into another. Larson’s machines – with unclear functions and nonfunctional parts – will never be operational. Despite the formalism present in his work, there exists an ambiguity of narrative, an absurdity resulting from myriad unanswered questions.
Larson received an M.F.A. from Yale University School of Art in 1992. He has often shown locally, most recently at Macalester College in St. Paul. He is the recipient of many awards, including a Jerome Foundation Fellowship in 1993, and a Bush Artist Fellowship in 1998.
University of Minnesota Faculty – Chris Larson
Minnesota Public Radio – Artist Chris Larson’s Absurdist Vision
St. Paul artist Chris Larson engages his imagination in a number of different artistic disciplines, including sculpture, photography, drawing and filmmaking. What results is art that often makes a grim statement about human existence, but is also attention-grabbing for its sheer size or ornate detail. Larson’s multi-faceted talents are on display in a new show which occupies three galleries at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Chris Larson admits he draws power from creating fantastical worlds that resemble reality but have no clear function. As a sculptor with impressive carpentry skills, he’s often concentrated on making incredibly elaborate, archaic-looking wooden machines from some bygone era. He does it in part to see where his imagination will take him, but also because of the way it engages the viewer.
“You wouldn’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s art,'” he says. “You’d look at it and you’d say, ‘Where did this thing get drug out from?’ You’d start asking different sets of questions … like, how does it work? And I don’t think you usually ask a piece of artwork how it works. You usually ask, you know, what the hell does it mean?”
The lobby gallery at Franklin Art Works holds several highly-detailed drawings that look like prototypes Larson could eventually build.
The centerpiece of the exhibition sits in the main gallery, occupying nearly half the space. It’s a giant pine wood sculpture of a comic book-style spaceship crashing into a wooden shed, captured at the moment of impact.
At first, it’s impossible not to be taken in by the drama of the scene, the way the walls of the shed are being shattered apart and the debris is gathering beneath. Upon further viewing, the metaphoric possibilities of the piece start to surface. Larson isn’t quite sure where it came from.
“There was a lot of things going through my head this past year,” he says. “And invasion is probably a big part that’s been on a lot of people’s minds.”
Larson says he also kept remembering a story his grandfather had told him, about a church in St. Paul some Russian immigrants burned to the ground in the 1930s. The church was being used as a meeting place by some local residents who wanted the Russians out.
“I wouldn’t go and say this is about this church that was blown up in the ’30s. I wouldn’t say this is about like invading Iraq or some planes crashing into buildings,” says Larson. “It’s just — there’s a lot of two worlds colliding right now, and it doesn’t seem like they’re colliding real well.”
Star Tribune art critic Mary Abbe has seen Larson’s work before in other settings, and often came away with a mixed reaction. The massive untitled sculpture of the crashing wooden spaceship convinced her he was finding his voice.
“In the past I’ve often felt that Chris’s stuff had a kind of brooding potential about it, but I wasn’t quite sure where it was going,” Abbe says. “When I walked in and saw the new piece at Franklin, I felt as though he had encapsuled, in one structure, all of the previous stuff.”
There’s a lot of two worlds colliding right now, and it doesn’t seem like they’re colliding real well.
For Larson, the piece was liberating. Finally, he could describe what he was creating in literal terms. A spaceship crashing into a Ted Kaczynski shack. He can’t say the same thing about “County Line,” a nine-minute film that’s also featured at his Franklin show.
“I don’t know how the hell I’d talk to you about my film,” he says. “There’s no simple way to talk to you about the film because it seems otherworldly or underworldly.”
Larson’s film is set to an eerie soundtrack. The camera settles on this dark, forbidding cage-like wooden machine. The capsule-shaped contraption consists of enormous gears, cranks, clamps and rods, and generates a gooey oily substance that runs through a trough around its perimeter.
There’s room for two men, one perched above, the other below. They power the machine with small movements. One moves his head from side to side while the other grasps a lever in his mouth.
It’s obvious the machine has no apparent function, and the enormous effort being put forth by the two sweat-drenched laborers is a futile exercise. Is it a statement about the drudgery of everyday life? Possibly. Or maybe something more sinister.
“I didn’t realize how dark it was until opening night,” Larson says. “Some people would go in and come right back out and say, ‘I’m not walking out because I don’t like it, I just, I can’t deal with this tonight cause it’s so, you know, it’s pretty thick and heavy.'”
The Star Tribune’s Mary Abbe says Larson hasn’t created any kind of new aesthetic to communicate his dark, absurdist themes.
“But I certainly think he has a distinctive voice,” Abbe says. “And there is something about that hard-working carpenter quality that does make him seem very Minnesotan. And I certainly like the philosophical overlay that goes along with the hard-working carpenter.”
Chris Larson is busy. His third solo show in New York is in November. He’s displaying his work right now at a gallery in Winnipeg, and will mount an exhibition in Berlin later this summer.
His show at Franklin Art Works, “Chris Larson: Sculpture, Film, Prints,” runs through June 5.
The Line Media – Saint Paul Artist Chris Larson Selected For 2013 Whitney Biennial
Until now, Saint Paul artist Chris Larson was best known nationally for his entry in Northern Spark last summer: a full-scale model of a Saint Paul house designed by architect Marcel Breuer, which he burned down outside the Union Depot.
Of the spectacle, the New York Times wrote: “Mr. Larson was planning something more than an ordinary house fire. He aspired to an inferno. To this end, he had hired a company called Hollywood Pyrotechnics Inc. to string up baggies full of denatured alcohol as an accelerant. And a custom print shop had donated a few tons of scrap paper (obsolete business cards, defective wedding invitations) to stuff the shell with kindling. ‘I want to burn it so fast there’s no time to mourn it,’ Mr. Larson said.”
Based on that work, plus Larson’s other large-scale forays into construction, art, and ritual, the 2014 Whitney Biennial recently announced that Larson will be one its artists. On the Whitney website, Donna De Salvo, chief curator and deputy director for programs at the Whitney, noted that, “Together, the 103 participants offer one of the broadest and most diverse takes on art in the United States that the Whitney has offered in many years.”
Larson teaches in the art department at the University of Minnesota. His specialities are scultpure, film/video, and performance installations. More of his work can be viewed on the Magnus Muller website.
Source: Whitney Biennial website
Volta 12 Art Basel – Chris Larson, Exhibitor
Born 1966 in St. Paul, MN, USA
Chris Larson was born in 1966 in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he still lives and works. Since 2008, his video “County Line” is part of the surrealistic collection Scharf-Gerstenberg/New National Gallery/National Museums of Berlin. Moreover, in 2008, his film “Crush Collision”, purchased by the New National Gallery Berlin, was shown in the Art Basel section “Art Film”.
Chris Larson’s art examines the relationships between humans and machines, exploring these ideas in sculpture, photography, drawing, and film. His sculptures are large wooden constructions that “operate” in an ambiguous realm between heroic purpose and absurd repetition. They play the dignity of human work and invention against the futility of toil and mechanization. Some sculptures speak of irrational collisions, like that of a spaceship crashing into a barn; other sculptures are “machines” to which Larson returns in his films, documenting enigmatic collaborations among people who labor together toward an unknown purpose. In one film, Larson confronts tropes of good and evil, yet confounds us with the strange, primal results of the encounter. Richly metaphoric, Larson’s
work dissolves clear boundaries between human and machine, purpose and absurdity, and the possibility of spiritual transcendence versus mechanistic determinism.
Burnet Gallery – Chris Larson
A recurring element throughout “Deep North” is the shotgun. What began as an interest in shotgun houses – small homes so-named because of how all the doors and hallways directly align – evolved into a literal use of the shotgun as a vehicle for creating art.
In “Deep North” the artist freezes life and action both literally and figuratively. Images of an ice-drenched shotgun house create a series of eerily serene tableaus. Sensual, abstract sculptures are revealed to be casts of actual gunshot blasts. An eight-minute film, entitled “Deep North” depicts a surreal, fantastical world, where bundled up characters repeatedly pass tubes of ice from one end of a shotgun house to the other.
Larson uses gunshot blasts to create artwork like traditional artists might use a paint brush or chisel. In “Deep North” he creates mixed-media sculptures, images and other artworks by literally shooting objects repeatedly and then capturing or reconstructing the aftermath. His works, created in such a violent fashion are disturbingly upbeat, serene and at times pastoral.
KATONAH, NY.- In an ambitious first-time solo exhibition at a New York museum, multimedia artist Chris Larson will create a site-specific commission for the Katonah Museum of Art. Larson is a film-maker and artist whose practice encompasses large-scale installation, sculpture, photography, and performance. This focused exhibition showcases the versatility and vision of this recent Whitney biennialist whose work explores themes of creation, destruction, and the transformation of space over time. Chris Larson: The Katonah Relocation Project is on view March 29-June 28, 2015.
Larson will take over the gallery and sculpture garden in a full-scale installation that draws its inspiration from the relocation of Katonah. In 1897, the town was moved to create the Cross River Reservoir, a much-needed source of drinking water for the ever-growing metropolis of New York City. Rather than lose the idyllic hamlet to the impending flood, townspeople banded together to transport their homes and belongings a short distance away, using horse-drawn sleds. Taking this story as a point of departure, Larson explores themes of home and relocation, examining both the strange history of this event and the materials that it encompassed – the timber logs used for transport, the grease used to ease mobility and, of course, the water that would eventually cover parts of the town.
Concurrent with the gallery installation, Larson will create a new work outside, which will be on view all summer. This large piece is modeled after the personal residence of Edward Larrabee Barnes, the great American museum architect who designed the Katonah Museum of Art and lived in nearby Mount Kisco. Set amidst an intimate garden on the backside of the Museum, the artist’s structure is both a symbol of modernist purity and a testament to the capacity of nature to intervene; large spruce trees puncture the floors and roof, and the building itself will be allowed to alter with the elements during its six-month installation. In addition to his sensitivity to the unique conditions of every environment, Larson has a track record of working with themes of domestic architecture. In a recent summer event, he fabricated a replica of a home by Marcel Breuer and set it aflame in front of an audience of onlookers and journalists (see “Burning Down the House” by Michael Tororello, The New York Times, June 9, 2013).
Chris Larson was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. He received a BFA from Bethel College in 1990 and an MFA from Yale University in 1992. In addition to exhibiting throughout the United States, Larson has participated in group exhibitions in Brazil, Canada, China, France, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay, and he has had solo exhibitions in Switzerland and Germany. His work was recently featured in the Whitney Biennial (2013). Larson has also received fellowships from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the McKnight, Jerome, and Bush foundations. He is currently on the faculty of the Department of Art, University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
State Of The Art – Chris Larson
Chris Larson’s artwork can take many forms—drawing, performance, sculpture, video—depending on the concept he seeks to convey. Sometimes, as in his video Heavy Rotation, Larson deploys all of these media to dramatic effect. The video begins with an overhead shot of the artist using a rudimentary compass to draw a circle. Suddenly, the bottom literally falls out of the drawing, revealing a previously-concealed room underneath, into which the artist descends and begins the process again.
The entire architectural structure then rotates on end with the artist beginning anew in each successive room. Confounding our assumptions about real and imagined space, the video presents the artistic gesture as both heroic and futile: once you finally reach the other side of the drawing, you’re immediately met with a new space of challenge and discovery. No matter the medium, Larson’s work builds on a historical tradition of interrogating the very method of making art, referencing Surrealist automatic drawing, midcentury gestural painting, and the analytic inquiry of conceptual artists.