Reading Pinocchio was profoundly influential to Mernet Larsen as a child. To her, the tale symbolized the opposite of abstraction: a wooden thing that became a real boy. So might her new paintings in her third solo show at James Cohan depict a similar metamorphosis, where the abstract Constructivist works of El Lissitzky become compositions for canvases depicting full-figured, albeit blocky, figures. Not only are the articulated, toy-like figures that populate these works Pinocchio-like—their mode of production is mechanistic as well, each an index of her step-by-step process of measuring, laying, carving, coloring, and pasting.
Across a prolific six-decade career, Larsen honed her instantly recognizable style of heavy-lidded figures with orthogonal limbs in reverse or isometric perspective rendered in a bleached, muted palette. Every day, even banal occurrences—reading in bed, doing sit-ups—are her favorite subjects. But here, she steps outside of those bounds—indeed, in a number of these works, out of the stratosphere. Whereas Gurney (After El Lissitzky) (2020) depicts a pair of figures in a hospital-like environment, Dawn (after El Lissitzky) (2020), sees a pair of stick-like figures perched on balance beams before a vertiginous horizon, seemingly about to take flight.
Mernet Larsen, Solar System, Explained (After El Lissitzky), 2020. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 52 x 55 inches.