Since 2001 New Mexico artist Ted Larsen has utilized found scrap metal that he welds, stitches, reconfigures, combines or otherwise manipulates in his sculptures. The carefully crafted sculptures retain their brilliantly painted surfaces, often showing the scars, rust, scuffs and scratches referencing the original object’s former function or life. Unlike a Frankenstein-like montage of pieces, Larsen’s creations are uniform and systematic with all parts functioning as a whole. The results are works that utilize and comment on the formal and theoretical concerns of Minimalism, Geometric Abstraction, and Constructivism.
For his Cell Series installation, Larsen will work with challenging and complex former jail cell spaces. His soluction is to utilize basic linear elements and “to deploy Lined Out in a manner that both disregards and is informed by these specific qualities within the architecture.”
The OJAC’s Cell Series presents the work of living artists within the “challenging” upper galleries of the historic 1877 jail structure. Sustaining the passion of the OJAC founders in supporting and exhibiting contemporary artists, visitors encounter works by artists that attempt to interpret and translate the world we universally experience with often surprising and enlightening results.
OJAC Director and Curator Patrick Kelly email interview with Ted Larsen (Jan/Feb 2017)
PK: Can you describe how you arrived at making the type of work that you currently create? I understand, from an online interview, that it is somewhat of a departure and occurred around September 11, 2001.
TL: That is a very big question! Let’s get into it!
Roll the clock back to 1986. That was the year I graduated from college. I was trained as a painter in school. My efforts at the time, and for the subsequent 15 years, were involved with painting and painting specific imagery. I was a referential landscape painter, albeit the landscape in my work was rather loosely interpreted. Think of it as Claude Monet meets Hans Hoffmann and you will get the idea! Over time, I continually honed my craft and the subject matter such that by the end of the 1990s, I was breaking down landscape into some pretty basic components of shape. That is where the wrestling match was. I wanted to find a way to break away from the specifics of imagery; I wanted to eliminate the external visual references but I didn't know how to do that at the time. It was a difficult period of time in the work that lasted from late 1998 and through the fall of 2001.
You are right to mention September 11, 2001. That was a very pivotal day in many people’s lives in our country and around the world. Its effects were different for everyone. I was in my late 30s with two kids and a mortgage. I didn't know how to resolve the struggles I was facing in the studio and that day happened. Like most people in the US, I watched the events unfold on the television. TV is a very specific tool; it shows something real, but it is not real. It is a kind of simulacra. At the time, estimates were that as many as 10,000 people per tower could have died. I had just watched a screen depiction of upwards of 20,000 people perish. Not only was the tragedy of that scale of loss profound, watching it in this way made it all the more surreal. Words don't really explain what shifted within me. By the end of the day I had been profoundly affected. I didn't work creatively for several weeks. When I returned to the studio, I abandoned painting entirely.
My efforts in the late 1990s and early 2000s led me to a new discovery. I was badly in need of an overhaul! I needed not just a tune-up, but a total rebuild. Along with my abandonment of painting and everything I had developed up to that point, I also had to abandon myself, as I understood myself. It was a truly existential time in my life and work. For the past 15 years (Wow, hard to imagine it has been that long!) I have dedicated myself to new philosophical and aesthetic principles—many of which I didn't know prior to this exploration. My education was to continue, in a less formal manner, but somehow more rigorous than when I was a student. I was now working completely outside of my knowledge base; I was for the first time inventing something. The work was very experimental. It was entirely new to me (concerning myself with whether or not it was new historically was not up to me to worry about—I didn't). I began deploying new techniques, modalities, and aesthetic principles. Many of these I invented as I was moving through the work. That work then, as it is today, was based in aesthetic theory dating back to the early 20th century. Those old roots still provide fresh fruit!
So here I am today, working in several modalities concurrently. I have no hierarchies within my practice. I have no favorite methods. The works created are made for no specific end; they don't illustrate an idea or concept. The work is about looking and seeing. Sure, I can assign meanings to things, but that doesn't make the work. Seeing makes the work. The things I make are starting points, not finishing points. The viewer brings to the work their life and experiences and completes the work. I am not interested in didactic substrates. I don't want the viewer to have a specific take-away from seeing the work, so I am careful not to imbue it with covert meanings.
I work with pure form, color, line, texture, light, or whatever, as ends to themselves; not to define meaning, but to open the possibility of creating meaning. My work is just as likely to be complex as highly reductive, just as likely to be flat as dimensional. It all depends on the nature of seeing and what holds my interest at the time of making. I make things; people see the things I make. Between these two points is where the art happens. It isn't up to me. It isn't up to the viewer. It is beyond both, and it only happens for some people in the “right” circumstances. Art is not a broadsword; it doesn't cut through things as much as accentuate what is already there. We just have to see and it can happen.
PK: You mention an “aesthetic theory dating back to the early 20th century”—what theory are you referencing?
TL: “We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are." —attributed to the Talmud
I don't want to bog down our interview in a lengthy analytical conversation about art history and philosophy. But here is a very brief synopsis of four art movements, which drive my work: Non-objectivity, De Stijl (also known as neoplasticism), Suprematism, and Constructivism.
Amazing as it probably seems, non-objectivity and abstraction are really very new forms of artistic expression. The primary and earliest forms of these come out of Northern European and Eastern European aesthetic philosophy from the early 20th century.
In Holland, De Stijl (began in 1917 and is Dutch for "style") was instrumental in the development of new ways of artistic expression. The purveyors of this new "style," Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondrian, and Gerrit Rietveld concerned themselves with how form, color, and line can be used exactly for what they are; in their considerations, these elements did not have to be used to create a representation of some other shape or form. They could be just themselves: a red square, a black line, or other basic forms. In general, De Stijl proposed ultimate compositional simplicity by using only straight, horizontal and vertical lines, and rectangular forms. Their aesthetic vocabulary was limited to the primary colors, red, yellow, and blue, and the three primary values, black, white, and grey.
Just prior to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, two Russian artists began two separate art movements, which were closely related philosophically but distant from one another in practice. Those extraordinarily influential movements are known as Constructivism and Suprematism. Both movements deal with the essential (basic) elements of design and composition. The founder of Constructivism was Vladimir Tatlin, who was interested in "constructing art." Constructivism's aesthetic principles are some of the most influential in the development of Modern Art. Likewise, Suprematism, whose roots begin at the same time as Constructivism, was critical in the aesthetic development of Modern Art. Suprematism concerned itself with basic geometric forms, such as circles, squares, lines, and rectangles, painted in a limited range of colors. Its founder, Kazimir Malevich pioneered the idea of an abstract art based upon "the supremacy of pure artistic feeling" rather than on visual depiction of objects.
Non-objectivity describes any type of abstract art that is wholly devoid of any reference to the natural world. This category of non-representational painting and sculpture typically uses geometrical imagery, which is one of the few sources of non-naturalistic motifs. Hence it is also referred to as geometric abstraction. All of these forms of artistic expression create the basis for "conceptualism" in art, where the idea becomes all-important.
All art movements are an extension of social theory. The roots of these aesthetic philosophies come from Structuralism, which created a methodology that elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure. That is some heady stuff! Just so people understand, art can be an extension of the sciences, albeit one that requires a less precise model.
This brings us back to the attributed quote from the Talmud at the beginning of my answer. I firmly believe in this perspective on seeing. "We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are."
PK: It is interesting for people to have an idea of where an artist’s work and philosophy derives and to clarify terminology. Can you talk about the process of your work? Does the concept or form come first and then you find the appropriate materials? Or do the materials dictate form?
TL: I propose that art making is a radical act in the moment, and yet based on history. The purpose of one is to illuminate the other. There are two histories involved; one is from art and one is that of the maker. Without one you cannot have the other. They are intertwined, much like the relationship of art and the viewer.
Artists generally create works that illustrate a single cohesive direction or didactic agenda. My studio practice does not offer such a linear projection. If making art is a radical act, I propose the reason for this act being radical and the basis of these actions is self-discovery. People are complex. In order to see ourselves fully, we must consider ourselves fully, from all perspectives and positions. All modalities and models must be open to us in this investigation. This is a rigorous investigation, a thorough one. In such an inquiry all means must be considered. It is an act of also winnowing away the unimportant to reveal truth. It is a reductive process. This is an ancient investigation dating back to Paleolithic man. I am searching for truth and spirituality—the essence of who I am and my relationship to this world and what is beyond it.
People often ask me as an artist, “what do you make?” I have a very simple answer. I make objects and installations that deal with perceptual experience. But if you think about that answer, it is so open and vague, almost meaningless! I love it. Isn't all art dealing with perceptual experience?
Okay, now to the specifics. I work with alternative and salvage materials. I am not interested in producing something with a specific message, about the materials or anything else. I use them because they fit the nature of my project. That almost all of the exterior portions of my work are constructed from salvage steel is about the material's specific pre-painted qualities. It is about that original thing's paint. These materials have history and I am interested in subverting that history. My primary investigation deals with history—my history and art history. By using a pre-painted material I can metaphorically make work that is not only an investigation of art history, but it is indeed historic because of the painted surface.
PK: Your installation for the OJAC’s Cell Series will utilize a work titled Lined Out. Can you talk specifically about the work and how its installation deals with such a challenging space?
TL: The place where the work is exhibited always informs the work. The Cell Series galleries are absolutely no different. They are at once interesting because of their architecture and made visually complex because of it. The steel coved ceiling, the herringbone brick floors, the deep-set windows, and the black iron stairway all compete with each other visually. My solution is to deploy Lined Out in a manner that both disregards and is informed by these specific qualities within the architecture.
Placing art, just like making art, is always a gamble; but if it pays off, it is worth the risk. I will not know if it will be completely successful until completion. I like knowing the circumstances around this project are provisional. Just as making a work of art in the studio carries risk, creating this installation in this space is also risky. In essence, taking my studio-built components into these unique galleries will be a form of my creative process. In a very real way, I am working with knowns (the studio-built components and the architecture of the facility) and unknowns (the specifics of perception and how it will be seen) in much the same way I work in my studio.
In order to facilitate the accomplishment of this piece, I need to work slowly, carefully, and yet in balance with spontaneity and expedience. It is a difficult balance to achieve. However, it is what I am practiced at doing and so I have confidence in the installation's success!
[Image: TED LARSEN, Lined Out (detail), 2017, metal, dimensions vary. Courtesy of the artist and Conduit Gallery, Dallas, TX.]
The Cell Series is made possible by the generous support of Susie and Joe Clack, Amy and Patrick Kelly, McGinnis Family Fund of Communities Foundation of Texas, Kathy Webster in memory of Charles H. Webster.