Los Angeles

Liz Larner

MOCA Geffen Contemporary

In 1987, as Liz Larner’s career came into focus, she was making modest but vivid sculptures out of petri dishes chock-full of ingredients fertile with bacteria destined to “bloom” into decay (e.g., Whipped Cream, Heroin, and Salmon Eggs [3 weeks]). Back then it would have been difficult to imagine her work ever getting caught up in an effete debate over the relationship between form and color, the nattering between the likes of Anthony Caro, Michael Fried, and George Sugarman. But it has. In 1988, one flinched at a safe distance from Corner Basher; as ball and chain whipped into ruin the corner of a room, it would have been alarming to hear Larner murmur, as she did recently, “People have dealt with the wall, or the floor, but where two walls meet is a really beautiful, poetic space.” Her art, once skinned and raw, has in the last ten years become healed, so to speak, by her appeal to the routine of postwar sculptural tradition. Liz Larner has converted.

I can still summon the gnawing jealousy that soaked me when I saw her petri dishes for the first time, in New York at the opening of the Whitney’s 1990 “Mind Over Matter.” That charmingly oddball show included a handful of artists besides Larner. and I was fortunate enough to be one of them. Time passes, but that early encounter with Larner’s work remains ingrained. Intense but uncomplicated beauty was at hand in one petri dish—before things went from fair to foul and the pink orchid, copper penny, and yellowy buttermilk became utterly disagreeable. In that “culture” Lamer represented nature, wealth, and sustenance—with an allegorical reach rivaling the seventeenth-century vanitas, where mortal power inevitably curdled.

It is not simply the weight of sentiment; I really do prefer her earlier work, the way she deployed guideless materials in the service of something unexpectedly suave but arresting. Used to Do the Job, 1987, comes to mind: an art-historical time capsule in the form of a paraffin wax cube perched atop a slightly larger cubic sheet-metal “base” that is as well a “case” for the sculpture, and therefore mocks the usual obligation for sculptures to sit somewhere. And this “base” or “case” turns into a “casing” the moment you discover what’s suspended in the wax: all the materials required to cast a sculpture in bronze, and to manufacture a bomb. That work is a blunt instrument, a bit of rough trade interrogating art's promise of long-term cultural consequence, and today it is troublingly poignant. Ten years later Larner completed I thought I saw a pussycat, 1997, a lyrical scribbling of a sculpture as dizzy and playful as Tweety Bird herself—and about as far from TNT as you can get. Used to Do the Job is unapologetic in its material edginess and unprocessed politics; all of that is long gone from I thought I saw a pussycat, which is instead informed by a devotion to more conventional tastes for the way line can provide the illusion of form, here helped by soothing and translucent color.

As far as LA MoCA’s retrospective is concerned, it’s difficult to get a grip on what exactly happened in the decade between the two sculptures, but evidently Larner’s trajectory changed course fairly abruptly. The map of those years follows the contours of half a dozen major works, from Bird in Space, 1989, the sizable homage in string to Brancusi’s 1928 sculpture of the same title, to the tautened-chain installations that butt in on the architecture they cling to (e.g., Chained form on the diagonal, interrupted, 1990) to the 1991 “Corridor” works with their brassy primary colors enlivening passages of unpredictable and highly eccentric forms, and finally to Park, 1996, the fallen tree supporting exotic plant life, which may hark back to Larner’s petri cultures. Set in chronological order these sculptures dart and zing from one to another, so that the “progress” they chart seems positively flighty. It’s hard to find the thread, but it’s just as hard to conclude that something is lacking for its absence. In the exhibition catalogue LA MoCA curator Russell Ferguson explains the change in Larner’s practice as a reflection of her attainment of a state of near-relaxation: “Her insistent questioning of sculptural norms over the last fifteen years has brought her now to a place in which the pleasures of form do not have to be challenged so relentlessly.” Whether we are witnessing an unambiguous course correction or a growing disenchantment with the earlier conceptual attitude is still an open question. In any case, this glance back at the oeuvre underscores the observation that her sculpture has by now touched nearly every point on postwar art’s compass without revealing any underlying approach.

Drifting or not, Larner is completely captivating in her return to the most central of sculpture’s conventions—mass, form, space, and color—where one feels she has found something that sustains her. Who could argue that Two or Three or Something, 1998-99, is not every bit as elegant as eloquent? The waxy pastel color, the wandering linear patterns that create an ambiguous and trembling space—it’s all fine looking. But, taking the long view that retrospectives afford, I wonder if her stylistic switch has any of the conviction of Pup Guston’s more famous conversion. Guston was virulent on this subject: “American abstract art is a lie,” he said, “a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of the spirit, a mask to mask the fear of revealing oneself. . . . It is laughable this lie. Anything but this.” I cannot tell whether Larner’s passions run as deep as Guston’s abhorrence of the old abstract orthodoxy. Was her own conversion fueled by an ultimatum too, leaving her pungent with confidence yet sulky about heaving the earlier values overboard? Did she too yelp, Anything but this? One hopes, of course. An ultimatum should sit at the heart of every conversion.

Ronald Jones is an artist and provost of Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design.