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Robert Larson + 2 @ SFMOMA Artist’s Gallery

Robert Larson, "Blue (Silver Stripe), 2007
For a growing number of artists obsessed with consumption and its effects, making art from detritus has become a way of demonstrating material invention, cultural criticism and autobiographical exegesis.  In this untitled show, Paula Moran, Robert Larson and Terry Thompson do a bit of each.  They serve up an inglorious slice of Americana whose arrival at this juncture feels like a well-timed antidote to the office parties and New Year’s resolutions that lay ahead.  It’s a sly, low-key exhibition that makes few upfront claims and, as such, it delivers some unexpected revelations.
The first thing you see upon entering the gallery is a sofa overflowing with empty bottles, placed there by Moran as a kind of memento liquoris to her alcoholic father. Nearby, there’s a rickety looking coffee table (with cigarette ends and well-thumbed books), an easy chair and a pair of very retro wall lamps. Old suitcases, a “closet” of empty coat hangers and a woman’s compact complete these dissolute tableaux. The surprise comes when you learn that all of this stuff is trompe l’oeil clay. We’ve seen this sort of perfectionist eye foolery before in the work Richard Shaw and Marilyn Levine – but never at this scale, and certainly not with this kind of psychological reach and detail.  Laugh or shudder?   It’s difficult to know how to react.  How can you when you the real and the fake are indistinguishable?  That confusion, which is literally baked into Moran’s work, encapsulates the conflicted emotions that I imagine underlie it.  
Robert Larson’s collages and Terry Thompson’s photorealistic oil paintings work well against this backdrop.  Both artists use product packaging, but in very different ways.  Larson, the clear star of this show, turns cigarette packages, gum wrappers, zip lock bags, matchbooks and other addiction-related detritus into abstract works that reveal only the slenderest hints (i.e. the Surgeon General’s warning message) of their origins.  Given that Larson collects his raw materials from the streets, it’s no surprise that his works have the surface texture of weathered billboards.  But by bending, folding and meticulously arranging select scraps, he transforms them into richly hued geometric matrixes whose tonal values and patterns shift according to where you stand.  Units of identical measure are his building blocks, but the results vary enormously.  A foil-and-paper-based piece created from Marlboro Lights packages (Gold Standard), for example, recalls the minimalist, monochrome grids of Agnes Martin, while a similarly conceived work (Red Honey), rendered in sun-bleached shades of Marlboro red, appears as an Op-ish matrix of hexagonal patterns.  
Robert Larson, "Red Honey", 1995-2011
From Larson we learn that tobacco companies aren’t the only ones employing clever packaging.  Dope dealers do it, too.  The miniature plastic bags they use to dispense heroin, weed and crack now carry distinct designs and logos. Larson, a seasoned scavenger, has accumulated a sizable collection, and from it he’s fashioned a translucent “quit” (Habitats) through which we can glimpse traces of the aforementioned substances.  Bits of gum wrappers, folded into tiny envelopes, get similar treatment; they’re arrayed in alternating shades of blue and silver, their impact magnified by Warholian repetition.
Like Tony Berlant and Mark Bradford, Larson has figured how a way to turn specific forms of detritus into a “palette” with infinite tonal and expressive possibilities.  He also shares an affinity to Fred Tomaselli, who, several decades back, launched a career by making “paintings” out of narcotic pills.  Larson doesn’t stress the link between visual seduction and addiction as forcefully as Tomaselli, but his inclusion of the cigarette maker’s fine-print warnings gives his work a satisfying conceptual bite. 
Paula Moran," Locked to her Looks; Objects of Objectification", 2009
Terry Thompson’s painted re-creations of junk food packages (popcorn, cereal, soda, TV dinners) I’m not so sure of.  Montaged in photorealistic close-ups, they’re accurate enough to bring back the taste and smell of those products – but to what end?   Do we really need to re-experience the salt-bomb rush of, say, Swanson TV dinners?   Perhaps.  Witness the recent run on Twinkies when its manufacturer, Hostess, announced it was closing up shop.  Who’d have imagined it? 
Such is the polarized nature of taste and temperament. For Thompson, one person’s meal is another’s poison.  For Larson, consumer waste is the raw material of transformative art.  And for Moran, another person’s indulgence is the stuff of haunting memories.
Robert Larson, Paula Moran and Terry Thompson at SFMOMA Artists Gallery through December 15, 2012.


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