It’s not easy for Soren Larson to talk about the work of his father, painter and sculptor David Larson, mostly because David Larson himself didn’t talk about his own work. “My father was a firm believer that art had to do its own talking,” Soren Larson said recently. “It had to communicate visually on its own terms. You can’t translate what a painting is about into words. If you could, then you would just say the words.”
The work of David Larson, now on view in “Articulating Mystery: The Art of David Larson” at the University of Maine’s Lord Hall gallery in Orono seems, at times, to do much more than talk. His figures seem to shout and stare at us from the canvas. They want us to understand — or they want us to question what we thought we understood.
The exhibit is made up of 35 paintings and five pieces of sculpture starting from the early 1970s, which was the time Larson moved his family from New York, where he had worked for an advertising agency, to an old blueberry canning factory in Penobscot. The painted work includes selections from several major series in the artist’s career.
The work is as much — and maybe more — about the viewer’s reaction to the figures or action outside of the frame as it is about what’s going on inside.
In his Asylum series, four works of which are included in “Articulating Mystery,” the viewer is confronted by a mass of figures with their arms raised and mouths open. Many of them stare at us from inside the frame. Some even hold curtains for us, just to make sure we’re catching the entire scene, a device Soren Larson said probably came from his father’s reading of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd style.
David Larson’s “Asylum with Two Nudes,” which is included in the Lord Hall exhibition, references a duality Soren Larson said his father played with in his work. The painting is divided into two sides: The left side seems to take place in a dark, dank world, lit by a small arched window with bars, populated by a mass of bodies and heads of all different types.
On the right side, two figures, one with a parasol, stand under a wide arch with a little town behind them. It’s clear these figures live in a very different place, but their faces and bodies have no distinctive characteristics.
That’s the duality his father hoped to capture, Soren Larson said.
“Are we [the viewer] in the asylum or are the people in the asylum?” he said. “There are a lot of duality themes, like the whole idea of the word asylum. Is it a sanctuary or a prison? A place where you’re safe or you’re in danger? When you call a painting the asylum, you bring to it all these issues. Is this a safe place or a scary place? Those are the kinds of things he was trying to get into in his paintings.”
Beckett is just one of the cultural allusions in David Larson’s work. Look closely and you’ll see the Dutch masters in Larson’s “Majo,” Edouard Manet in “The Picnic” and Rembrandt in “The Anatomy Lesson.” Larson’s painting, “They Reached Heaven and Found It Empty,” mounted on the gallery ceiling, can even be perceived as a response to Andrea Mantegna’s painted ceiling in the ducal palace of Mantua in Italy.
Soren Larson said his father believed in sketching, drawing and study, especially of the old masters.
The influence of Leonardo da Vinci is evident in Larson’s Last Supper series. Soren Larson said it wasn’t the religious tone of the work that attracted his father to da Vinci’s work, but rather da Vinci’s portrayal of the moment after Jesus’ announcement that one of the disciples would betray him.
“My father was not a religious man but what he really liked was the dramatic moment … one thing he pointed out was you could take this idea of someone in power dropping a bomb and people sort of shuffling to find out who’s got the power, where they should go,” Soren Larson said. “It’s something that is not just limited to the Last Supper. It’s a kind of dramatic moment you can translate to almost any modern-day scenario where you have the same kind of power.”
“Articulating Mystery” also contains four paintings from David Larson’s final series, “Falling Man,” which are images of a man on the ground and people reacting — or not — to the figure. Soren Larson said his father wanted to get to the reaction of the people around the fallen figure. The fact that the figure on the ground is wearing a suit may be a comment from his father on something deeper.
“I think the fact that the guy on the ground is a businessman, I think he’s saying something about our society,” he said. “Maybe he’s saying there’s something wrong with the focus on business.”
That’s no surprise, considering David Larson was the son of a banker who was an avid photographer and lover of classical music, and Larson himself left the advertising world in New York for a life in the countryside of Maine. Eventually he opened Larson Fine Art Gallery in Penobscot. The business was renamed the Larson Studio and Gallery five years before Larson’s death in 2007.
Like much of his work, David Larson gave some clues about the meaning behind the Falling Man series but didn’t tell people much else.
“He made them purposely difficult,” Soren Larson said of his father’s body of work. “He used words like ‘upsetting,’ ‘challenging’ and ‘confronting,’ and he used them very proudly. He wanted to make it difficult. He wanted it to be a dialogue between the painting and the viewer. I know once, someone came into the gallery and said, ‘your paintings are interesting, but they’re very depressing.’ And my father said, ‘no, they’re disturbing, not depressing.’”
“Articulating Mystery: The Art of David Larson” closes March 20. The Lord Hall gallery is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information on David Larson, visit www.larsonstudio.com.