IS TED LARSEN THE LOVE CHILD OF CONSTRUCTIVISM AND MAX ERNST?
God only knows—and maybe ARTnews, where you’d find a question like this as the lead-in for a not-so-nuanced look at Some Assembly Required, Ted Larsen’s recent exhibition of sculpture at David Richard Gallery. It’s a very strong show of spot-on assemblage sculpture whose visual whimsy and wry humor rely upon Larsen’s knack—that’s too ARTnews-y: gift—for harnessing good design to still better invention. The result is a series of small geometric metal-and-plywood, polychrome wall constructions of enormous visual appeal and seductive anecdote. The experience for the viewer is akin to perusing the short stories of Cheever or Chekhov.
At first glance the work is not imposing, and it’s certainly not intrusive. A typical piece is less than two feet in height, a linear wall-mounted assemblage of welded lengths of square-sided metal bars that run at right angles along x-y-z axes within some imaginary three-dimensional grid. For some pieces, the metal armature serves as support scaffold for a single slab or for stacks of contiguous laminate plywood rectilinear plaques—all plated with industrial-dye metal strips whose matte, chalky enamel surfaces of green, blue, cerulean, orange, ochre or tan suggest the polychrome remnants of some Rubiks cube cut into strips in some waste-salvage WALL-E world. But a closer look and a bit of reflection make apparent the visual appeal of each piece and a strength and subtlety that ground it. Here and There (2012) is both a visual and figurative gateway to the show. An irregular, seven-foot lattice of welded steel projects six feet from one gallery wall. Its widely spaced vertical bars proclaim a boundary yet invite passage, a kind of portal to the dozen wall pieces that bracket and define the gallery enclosure.
On the formal level, at least, you could make a persuasive case for the Constructivist aesthetic. Stripped of its utopian content, the Russian early modern theory espoused three principles in its art making: tektonika, whereby the constituent industrial materials invest the work with meaning; konstruktsiya, or “construction,” basically the assembling of the sculpture from various components (at the time, a revolutionary approach vis-àvis traditional sculpture’s carving and modeling), and faktura, or the choice and handling of the materials. It is unlikely that Larsen explicitly subscribes to these principles but, whatever the artist’s approach, his sculpture does reflect their virtue of ensuring both structural integrity in the work and visual discourse with the viewer. Larsen’s pervasive use of polychrome salvage steel plating adds the “found-element” factor so effectively deployed in Duchamp and later Surrealist sculpture (with a nod to Picasso’s seminal use of the device in his projecting Cubist wall constructs), and applied with great effect here to establish chromatic texture and poetic tone for each piece.
For several pieces in the show (Linear Curve, Past Prediction, Random Pattern, Real Fantasy, and Whole Half) Larsen uses the welded steel bars simply as support for a single wall tableau, in the sense here of a projecting abstract panel with strongly narrative overtones. The panel of Past Prediction floats out from the wall like a mounted flat tv screen, a plywood high-relief divided horizontally into two wraparound zones of patina green and white plating and, attached to its surface, a vertical wooden frame that optically bends forward as it extends to the upper, green zone. In the similar tableau of Linear Curve, this play of perspective is elaborated in the jig-saw cube formed on the surface from polychrome triangles of salvage steel, and again in the foreshortened illusion of Missing Present.
This allusive quality is especially evident in those sculptures in which the support, or armature, function of the welded steel bars is elevated to visually embody the proffered conceit: (Loose Knot, Nearly Complete, One Choice, Personal Space, Soaring Down). It is equally apparent in the chiastic play between the virtually identical polychrome compositions of Orderly Confusion and Random Pattern, either one of whose motley Mondrian stack of enamel-plated plinths—luggage or books of varied hue—beguiles the viewer with its Edward Hopper palette and whispered tales of Cannery Row.
But apart from the visual wit and wordplay—or perhaps better, at the source of it—is Larsen’s formidable command of his medium. The wit and whimsy that pervade these sculptures are entirely a function of Larsen’s approach to facture—shapes and colors as visual grammar—and his underlying sense of design’s narrative force—as visual syntax. This openness to form and materials as visual language yields highly personal yet engaging work (whereas the Constructivist submission to an overriding utopian agenda often led to art as propaganda). His Never Again—a seemingly effortless amalgam of thin burgundy, ochre, and white plated rectangles stacked contiguously like accordions along a horizontal axis—is as enigmatic, random, and purposeful as a poem by William Carlos Williams: “so much depends/upon//a red wheel/ barrow//glazed with rain/water//beside the white/chickens.”