Liz Larner’s lavish mid-career research at SculptureCenter begins with a bang, or a few of them: A motorized steel ball, tethered to a rotating column, slams into the gallery wall. The piece is called “Corner Basher” and the speed is determined by the viewer; turning the dial all the way up results in an increasingly louder and more frequent booming sound, a growing dent in the architecture, and a gleeful sense of transgression.
Not everything in the show is as powerful as “Corner Basher” (1988), but other works also play up underutilized spaces in ways that can seem just as rebellious: the thick industrial chains that bend around the wall in “Wrapped Corner,” for instance , or the nylon and silk cords that extend to the headwaters of SculptureCenter’s soaring main gallery in “Bird in Space” (a 1989 piece that shares a title and clean lines with a famous Brancusi sculpture while expanding the whole idea of sculpture as a object on a pedestal).
“Liz Larner: Don’t Put It Back Like It Was” is the artist’s most important New York show to date, and her biggest exploration since 2001. It travels to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in April, though it’s difficult is a more ideal location for Larner’s extensive body of work than SculptureCenter’s slightly renovated former carriage repair shop, with its varied building materials (from Cor-Ten steel to exposed brick) and its spacious central gallery flanked by more intimate spaces.
Los Angeles-based, Sacramento-born Larner, who has worked and exhibited steadily for three decades, does not have an easily recognizable style. Her sculptures and installations range from microscopic to immense and use materials such as plastic, metal, paper, leather, volcanic ash, surgical gauze and bacteria. Her work can be rough or refined, and sometimes both at once, as evidenced by a beautiful group of ceramic wall reliefs with jagged edges and silky iridescent glazes. It can be abstract or, like the disembodied cast pewter appendages of “Hands” (1993), eerily figurative.
But there are a few through-lines in this nicely arranged exhibition of some 30 works. The most obvious is a playful reference to other sculptors, notably post-minimalists like Eva Hesse and Lynda Benglis, but also Louise Bourgeois, David Smith, Cady Noland and Ken Price. In “Lash Mat” (1989), Larner glues hundreds of pairs of false eyelashes onto a wide strip of leather that runs from wall to floor. It’s impossible to look at this luscious fur without thinking of the surrealist Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup, though it could also be read as a more contemporary feminist critique of the beauty industry. Larner has said she also thought of the thick fringed eyes that were characteristic of sculptor Louise Nevelson, as well as the wavy patterns of Bridget Riley’s painting “Crest.”
And in “2 as 3 and Some, Too” (1997-98), the steel frames of two open cubes – a shape associated with the rigid geometries of the likes of Sol LeWitt – seem to be smeared together as easily as possible. crumple up a foil candy wrapper. Larner wrapped them in sheets of mulberry paper, which she also colored with watercolor in Easter egg shades. The piece is large, measuring 137 inches at its widest point, but appears extremely delicate.
Works like this may seem focused on sculpture’s past, but Larner has also thought deeply about the medium’s future. As this show and the catalog make clear, posthumanism is just as important to her as postminimalism. In an interview with Walker’s Executive Director Mary Ceruti, who co-hosted the exhibition with SculptureCenter’s interim director Kyle Dancewicz, Larner elaborates on her interpretation of the term “viewer”: “It can or any number of people, perhaps even animals, plants, insects, or minerals.”
In the late 1980s, Larner experimented with bacterial cultures – an idea now being explored by a new generation of artists, most notably Anicka Yi. In a 1987 work by Larner that takes the form of two Petri dishes presented under glass, microorganisms destroy buttermilk, the petals of an orchid and a copper penny.
As Larner Ceruti tells in their interview, she’s thoughtful about how her art — and all art — will fare over time. “Most artists don’t want their work to disappear, to biodegrade. But I think this is something that artists, like everyone else, will have to deal with,” she says. In a floor sculpture presented last spring at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, which will expand in an exhibition at Kunsthalle Zurich this summer, Larner created a sprawling three-year collection of plastic waste from her household.
While this body of work is not included in the research at SculptureCenter, it is hinted at in a beautifully dystopian array of pieces created over the past decade and installed in the cryptic basement galleries. Here, ceramic plates covered with minerals and stones suggest alien landscapes, or perhaps a post-Anthropocene view of our planet.
In everything from the aggressive wall thumping of Larner’s “Corner Basher” to the decaying orchid petals of her bacterial cultures and her deft de-materialization of Brancusi, the exhibition’s subtitle, “Don’t Put It Back Like It Was,” remains stuck in the mind. “It” could be the gallery space, or the sculptural canon, or the way we were before the pandemic, or life on Earth.
Liz Larner: Don’t put it back the way it was
Until March 28 at SculptureCenter, 44-19 Purves Street, Long Island City, Queens. 718-361-1750; sculpture-center.org.