contemporary painting

An Interview with Mernet Larsen Pt. 1

In part one of our interview, Mernet discusses her artistic inspiration.

“Larsen’s statement says she is working ‘to offer a new perspective unto life.’ Certainly this exhibit offers a look at an artist who is doing contemplative and deeply investigative work, and gives us a chance to better know a unique voice.”—Anderson Turner, Akron Beacon Journal 

Mernet Larsen (b. 1940) makes intriguing, humor- and tension-infused paintings featuring geometric figures that inhabit space in ways that defy gravity and conventional viewpoints. The artist stages ordinary scenes—people playing cards or eating dinner, a faculty meeting, reading in bed—but constructs them with vertiginous, skewed spatial relationships that convey a sense of precariousness. The disorienting treatment of perspective places the viewer inside and outside of the paintings at the same time, “as if they’re wearing the situation,” the artist describes. Along with the figures’ deadpan facial expressions and subtle body language, Larsen’s puzzling compositions reveal an essence of everyday human interaction. Wry, anxious and awkward, the paintings are frozen monuments that are simultaneously alien and familiar.

Mernet Larsen: The Ordinary, Reoriented is organized by the Akron Art Museum with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ohio Arts Council.

Collection Feature: Richard Estes, Food City

by Associate Curator, Theresa Bembnister

Food City verges on abstraction, as colors, shapes and brushstrokes intermingle. Cars, taxis and vans flatten into the same space as the cashier’s pink uniform, the checkout counters and stacks of cigarette packs. The facades of multistory buildings merge with hand-lettered signs advertising chuck steaks at 39 cents a pound. Richard Estes crops his painting so the grocery store’s glass windows fill the entire composition. Exterior and interior elements dissolve into a single plane. This energetic visual potpourri mimics the vitality of the surrounding New York City.

Richard Estes, Food City, 1967, Oil, acrylic and graphite on fiberboard 48 in. x 68 in. Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Purchased, by exchange, with funds raised by the Masked Ball 1955-1963

Richard Estes, Food City, 1967, Oil, acrylic and graphite on fiberboard, 48 in. x 68 in. Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Purchased, by exchange, with funds raised by the Masked Ball 1955-1963

Richard Estes is known as one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated photorealist painters. In his case, however, that credit is a bit of misnomer. Estes’ paintings do not actually have the same level of veracity that viewers associate with photographic images. That’s not to say that the camera isn’t central to the artist’s process. He photographs his subjects, collaging multiple prints together to achieve his desired composition. Estes then subtly tweaks his imagery, removing some elements that appeared in the photographs and adding others. Nowadays, the 85-year-old artist accomplishes this with the help of Photoshop. Unlike other artists active in the photorealist movement, Estes never used a grid or a projector to transfer his photographs to canvas or board. Instead, the artist drew and painted freehand.

When Estes made Food City in 1967, the young artist primarily focused on his immediate urban surroundings as subject matter. This painting of a busy grocery store in New York City’s Upper West Side neighborhood provided him the opportunity to show off the lettering skills he picked up as a freelance illustrator. These gigs paid Estes’ bills until he was able to focus his attention on painting full time in 1966. The artist credits his commercial work, and not his earlier training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with forcing him to master his craft. That work required him to translate photographs into painted illustrations for reproduction.

View more photorealistic artworks in the Akron Art Museum collection.