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She's Back. But She's Never Been Away . . .

Liz Larner's sculptures, on view again locally, use color, odd material to convey illusions of volume.

June 28, 1998|Hunter Drohojowska-Philp | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Anyone who visited the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Geffen Contemporary last winter or spring saw a 1991 sculpture titled "Corridors" by Liz Larner, consisting of bright red pennants made of fabric and steel.

"Whatever happened to her?" might well be a question that would come to mind. Larner made a splash as part of MOCA's renowned "Helter Skelter" exhibition of L.A. artists in 1992, but although she still lives here, her last solo show in the area was in 1991, at Regen Projects in West Hollywood.

A visit to Larner's Highland Park studio reveals that she has been plenty busy since then making sculpture, but in recent years her shows have been in Europe and New York, not here. Until now: A hollow shelf topped with yellow tissue-covered rings seen at the Kunsthalle Basel in December, along with some newer pieces, went on view this weekend at Regen Projects.

Larner, 37, stands a statuesque 5 feet 10 and has a face that turns into upward curves and dimples when she laughs, which is often. Sentencing her tan dog, Suge, to the backyard, she flops onto a sofa and begins to contradict the perception that she has been missing in action. "I've shown almost every year except 1996," she says, "when my studio burned down and my Dad died. I had to teach a lot to make money. And I was making a transition. I think I was thinking about stuff. I did some work I didn't like, so I didn't show it."

No two pieces that Larner makes look alike, but her goal is consistently to upend the traditional ways that we look at abstract sculpture. Using color, for example, to outline forms rather than to define shapes, she often tricks the eye. Her materials include chrome chains, torn fabric and broken mirrors, through which she creates illusions of volume.

For example, a recent sculpture comprising 400 aqua-and-chartreuse polyurethane teardrops is currently stacked in the corner of the Vienna's MAK Galerie. The title, "I Thought I Saw a Pussycat," refers to the malleable, invented space of cartoons.

"The teardrops link together to make a pattern, which disappears due to the color," the artist says.

Larner first came to the attention of critics and collectors when she exhibited her "Corner Basher" at the 1987 LACE Annuale here. A motorized tetherball-like contraption, the work included a steel ball, suspended from a chain, that whipped furiously against the walls of the gallery. Viewers determined the speed and velocity of the ball's movement by a switch near the work, and the dynamic of the installation changed with each new venue. "Everywhere it is shown, it leaves a mark, but that mark is made by the audience," Larner explains. "In France, there were a few black marks on the wall. The audience there decided to see it more as a metaphor. In Germany, it left a mark about 6 inches deep."

It may have been the potential violence of "Corner Basher" that led Larner to be included in "Helter Skelter." For that show, she wrapped chrome chains around a gallery corner to play with notions of vanishing-point perspective.

Looking back, Larner muses, "My work then had more to do with my ideas about two-dimensional work than it did about three-dimensional work. The chains relate to what I'm doing now, but they were more like drawing. They didn't have the color, but they had the openness. I was trying to figure out how not to have a sculpture give itself away in terms of how you sense its density by its scale."

Larner came to sculpture from the two-dimensional field of photography, which she studied at CalArts, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1985. "It was the 'High Appropriation' era, and I felt that images were so pervasive. I wanted to see if I could make art without relying on imagery."

She studied at CalArts with Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, now a colleague in the graduate program of Art Center College of Design, where Larner has a full-time teaching position.

"I wanted to try to work in physical space. I loved Donald Judd and all those artists from the '60s and '70s, but I felt there was all this extra room, territory that wasn't explored at that time," she says. "I also felt that formal issues were being disregarded. But formal issues are just as cultural as anything else. I thought all that theory could be applied to formal or abstract operations. I'm really interested in visual experience. I don't make the distinction that Conceptual art is smart and the other stuff is dumb. The way something is put together can have the same impact as content-driven work. The content of my work is the structure and how you perceive it."

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