Last year at the Detroit Artists Market's exhibition Metalize, Evan Larson stretched me out as far as I could go in defining the role of art in culture. We talked for hours and I was inspired by his poetic investigation of his craft and walked away with a mind-blowing reading list.
In the show, he had a Rube Goldberg-like machine hanging from the wall that was as delicate, intricately constructed and inspiring as a flower and as frustrating as an empty Bordeaux bottle. With pulleys and scales and all of the typical materials of contemporary craft, including bronze, copper, silver, feathers, rubber and Plexiglas, the apparatus twinkled like a Tiffany chandelier. I wanted it to do something, even something metaphorical like a Jean Tinguely kinetic art machine. Alas, it hung there as pure object.
The title of the "sculpture" was compelling and suggestive but didn't help a lot: "The Folding and Unfolding of Substance and Simulacra." I knew that Larson was engaged in exploring not only the murky definitions of art and craft, but, with that big word, simulacra, he was exploring human perception.
Currently, Larson is an assistant professor of metalsmithing at Wayne State University. He's had some tasty academic and scholarly experience that sets him apart from most craftsmen, and I dare say, from most artists. He received the coveted Fulbright Research Grant for a stint in Korea where he researched metalsmithing techniques in industry, universities and in the traditions of Korean culture.
Gary Griffin, former Cranbrook metalsmith artist-in-residence and Larson's mentor, says, "Evan is a very rare metalsmith who combines a reverence and exceptional understanding of historical materials and process with an evolved intellectual program. He's eccentric and his work is amazing, but difficult for a lot of people."
Currently there are four pieces of Larson's work in a fine exhibition at Meadowbrook Art Gallery that attest to its gnarly complexity. The show is entitled Sculpture???, and, as the question marks hint, the curator might be asking where the work in the show plugs into the traditional taxonomy of art. In Larson's case, it's a moot point, as it seems he's more interested in the hybridization of materials, and how and what the audience sees in his work, than what it's called. Though he's a classicist by training, he's an iconoclast in temperament. Larson's work is an interrogation of metalsmithing and decorative art, but also of art and the gallery scene.
In "Meta-Fiction," a large, elegantly decorative wall piece, we are confronted by what appears to be a series of delicate copper and silver flowers growing out of hammered copper bases. The title hints at its identity, and the beautiful but weird flowers evoke an edgy narrative. The copper bottoms multiply from one base to another, as do the flowers they support. There are six bases and six erect flowers. Finally, I realized and not without a lot of head scratching that "Meta-Fiction" depicts the process of neuron cell division or mitosis. The flower stems are axons and the scary little stamens are dendrites.
This is the apparatus in our brain that accomplishes neurotransmission or, in a nutshell, perception and thought. Larson has evoked a pseudo-scientific picture of what actually happens when we look at his work. If that's not a bit of art humor, in the last nerve cell, the erect axons and dendrites have drooped to a post-coital state.
Larson's other pieces in the show, which include a surveillance camera that keeps an eye on his work, make even further and perhaps more demanding critiques of human perception and art's role in communicating cultural information. The amazing aspect of his work is how, within any piece, he transcends genre, quite comfortably moving from decorative jewelry to sculpture, cannibalizing art history. By including artifacts from our daily life, the complex part of Larson's work is puzzling over the very contemporary problem of deciding who is watching whom, and what is being watched.
Sculpture???, curated by Kevin Ewing, presents the work of Ewing, Evan Larson, Matthew Blake and Brian Nelson, running through Oct. 8 at Oakland University Art Gallery, 208 Wilson Hall, Oakland University, Rochester; 248-370-3005. A fine descriptive catalogue is also available.
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