Return to Articles


December 2, 2001 - March 10, 2002 at Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown

by Kathy Zimmerer

Liz Larner's sculptural works deal with the interaction of direct experience, perception and language. Her works take us into space in a very physical way. She uses first our sensations of mass, density, weight, and our linguistic habits to guide us into noting our bodies, our experience, our heads, as well as our presumptions about what art is (and is not), what it does, how it speaks, where art begins and ends.

We know her best from her provocative ‘80s Culture series; works made from organic matter, waste, agar (the waxy gelatinous substance that scientific petri dishes are made of), lint, who knows what, activated to grow in unusual places, in unusual colors and volumes by Larner's saliva and the unpredictable microbes carried in it. When I first saw these works, a more provocative multi-tiered reference to progress, pseudoscience, and the arbitrariness of creation/culture/art/meaning I could not imagine.

The word “conceptual” goes with her vitae and with a cursory (only cursory) pass over this work like a muscle reflex. Larner could be called the prototypical conceptual artist, yet as generations intervene between the 1960s and products like hers, the word "conceptual” seems to tell us less and less.

The compositional element of random change seen in the Culture series and in the miles of gauzy stuff she has used to make quintessential spheres can still be felt in new works dating to the late 1990s and 2000. As the name implies Corridor Red/Green offers a strong nod to the “art” part of the work, to the formal and perceptual entry points found in much current conceptual work that would have been unorthodox earlier. There is also a distinct sense of sheer beauty in a work like Corridor, which looks like self-propagating, organic matter growing across the viewing space. It calls attention to the stable architecture, to the work’s size and scale, and to its concomitant lack of tangible mass and of stasis.

Since the late ‘90s, Larner has seemed much more composed, artful, and engaged more directly with the ideas of gesture, color and, yes, even beauty not typically associated with conceptual art. Whatever the message here, we are taken to that message by an artful craftsperson who can calibrate form with refinement; whatever the message, part of it involves engaging the viewer in questions that demand us to think about the post modern, post structural dichotomy between experience (that stuff we do with our bodies, or senses, our perceptions, our daily lives) and abstraction (that stuff we do with our symbols, our language and our heads). The subtle and interlocked yoking of these two modalities and the idea that conceptual art consciously takes these apart are ideas you cannot avoid noting in this show.

If you read the catalogue essay by Russell Ferguson of the Hammer Museum, he aptly begins by contextualizing and introducing Larner in terms of her place in a long line of ‘60s era work, which like Joseph Kosuth's and Mel Bochner's, challenged traditional notions of 3-D space and insisted on objecthood by redefining space through bending it (Richard Serra) or by reference to its measurement (Kosuth's works that marked the space between canvases). Ferguson notes that Larner’s is also the generation of Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and Barbara Kruger, artists who worked through the bombast of pure, heady conceptual work of the ‘60s and ‘70s and gradually came back via photography to making more artistically conceived objects.

Her positioning in this tradition is accurate. The mirrored work Between Love Me and Love Me Not mimics Rococo décor. The work is a mosaic of glass shards arranged finely, like a floral floor pattern whose broken fragments extend, defy, fracture and redefine perceptions of our body and of the boundaries of space.

“Corridor Red/Green,” leather, rock,
lead, metal, car paint, wood,
fabric, dimensions variable, 1991.

“Ignis (Fake),” aluminum/
32 x 32 x 34”, 1998-99.

“Bird in Space,” nylon cord sewn
with silk and weighted with
stainless blocks, dimen-
sions variable, 1989.

“2 as 3 and Some Too,”
2 elements, 60 x 60”
each, 1997-98.

“Between Love Me and Love
Me Not,” 2 x 2 meter square,
3 cm of thick cut mirror,
dimensions variable, 1992.

Indeed what seems to characterize works like Between Love Me and Love Me Not, or Surprisingly Nameless is the return of the more refined art object filtered through the rigorous, austere conceptual object. Larner's Untitled stainless steel skeins, like Robert Therrien's coiled phone cord clouds, are able to retain, even cultivate form and beauty not as an aesthetic end in itself but as a means of generating viewer engagement with how we perceive and name visual data.

It is telling that Larner states in Ferguson's essay that "space [as used] today means real space, something that impacts you in a physical visual way. . . like heat." Works like Park remind us that Larner is good at navigating that tricky ground between the direct physical sensation of heat and the elaborate poetic, constructed "heat” that resonates in language and memory. Because we enter this domain through work that is not text, not object, not action but indeed art, some critics have tagged this new generation of conceptualists “post post modern,” designating work that has been grown and raised on the rhetoric of objecthood, but has had at least two decades to settle in, to find its place between things of art and things of life without privileging either.