What we do on this planet (and other absurdities): Profiles of Jim Denomie & Chris Larson

What we do on this planet (and other absurdities): Profiles of Jim Denomie & Chris Larson

Posted January 10th, 2020 by Russ White

Ahead of their upcoming Discussion Series, two of the McKnight Foundation's 2018 Artist Fellows talk to us individually about their practices.

Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Artist Fellowship ProgramMcKnight Logo

The following is the first in a series of articles profiling the eight distinguished artists chosen as 2018 McKnight Fellows, a grant program for mid-career artists that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The two artists here will take part in the McKnight Discussion Series on January 23rd, talking publicly about their work with Emily Liebert, Curator of Contemporary Art at the The Cleveland Museum of Art. Russ White visited each of their studios beforehand to get a preview of their work.

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Photo by Rik Sferra.

Do you remember the part in The Wizard of Oz when they’re walking past an orchard and Dorothy picks an apple, and the tree comes to life, mad as hell? It accosts her for her arrogance and angrily throws its fruit at our heroes, chasing them off (apples in hand). They say that if you squint just right, off in the distance between the trees you can see a line of oil derricks and nuclear warheads. Closer to the road, Kim Jong Un is munching on popcorn while a policeman holds Eric Garner in a chokehold, and the Tin Man’s water faucet dick is hanging out the whole time. Okay, you got me — this isn’t part of film history. It’s part of American history, as viewed through the lens of Jim Denomie’s surreal, satirical paintings. 

The artist lives and works in Shafer, about an hour north of Minneapolis, and the drive up took me through a landscape sedated by a blanket of snow, everything white and gray and quiet. It was almost a shock to the system to suddenly be standing in front of a seven by ten foot canvas awash in purples, yellows, pinks, and greens — a wall-sized work in progress in Denomie’s garage studio. Four riders on horses stare back at me: nude women half-rendered in splotches of yellow, pink, purple, and orange; one man front and center with a 10-point buck skull for a head — or is it a mask? The horses bare their teeth through crude donuts of paint, their legs dissolving into the color blocked shapes of an eerie, abstracted landscape. A river runs by, still yellow from Denomie’s ochre underpainting. 

We lean against his car looking at the piece, talking about painting, process, and inspiration, although he doesn’t seem eager to spell out any symbolism here. Unlike his overtly political paintings, this on-going series of riders on horseback is more open-ended, more spiritual, tangentially related to the artist's Ojibwe heritage though not directly inspired by it. He’s also not sure how much longer this piece will take to finish. Each painting’s different, he says. "It's like a baseball game. I can’t predict how long it’s going to take.”

Denomie is a painter’s painter. He leads me upstairs to his second floor studio to show me a few of the ten other canvases he has underway right now. Finished pieces litter the room, hanging on the walls and leaning up against tables as he prepares inventory for several shows. There’s also a small collection of etchings sitting out, but he finds that the technical thinking required for printmaking interferes with his workflow when he returns to the easel. He still keeps a sketchbook going, though, full of quickly scrawled line drawings in ballpoint pen — political cartoons, records of his dreams, and endless ideas for paintings.

Top: Oz, the Emergence; oil on canvas; 98 x 140"; 2017​. Bottom: A page from the artist's sketchbook, ballpoint pen on paper.

Now in his sixties, Denomie is well-known and well-loved in the arts community. He’s experienced a lot of success in recent years, receiving grants, placing work, and mounting shows near and far, even as he maintains his day job as a drywall finisher. Much has been written about the artist as well, especially after winning the McKnight Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Award this past fall. But not all of the attention has been kind. 

His 2018 show of “Standing Rock Paintings” at Bockley Gallery prompted a small firestorm of criticism after a Republican legislator objected to grant funding going to a painting in which Donald Trump sexually assaults Lady Justice. It’s just one detail among dozens on a massive canvas depicting the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. The cops and the water protectors are divided by a river of fluorescent orange and pink. There are two-headed dogs, police trucks painted with swastikas, and a Klansman fellating an officer in riot gear. Denomie pulls no punches.

The artist and the gallery started receiving threats and insults from self-proclaimed art experts in MAGA hats. Most disturbingly, someone even shot off a gun late one evening outside Denomie’s home. “Gunshots out here are not uncommon,” he says, “but not at 10:30 at night.” When I ask him if the threats and the controversy compel him to tone it down at all, he gives a flat, emphatic “No.” The irony, of course, is that these violent philistines just prove his point.

UnTruthful, oil on canvas, 2014.

“American culture is nothing compared to European culture or Native culture,” he says. “I mean, American culture is 500 years old, which is very young, and what they celebrate is money, TV, guns... that kind of thing.” His satirical pieces flesh out this short, violent history with a blend of wicked humor, art history, pop culture, and sex jokes. The results are often laugh out loud funny, like a Far Side cartoon painted by Hieronymus Bosch. It’s the twisted true story of a continent invaded, and for Denomie, a very personal story as well.

“My existence is in response to government policies over the last hundred years: the Assimilation Campaign, the Relocation Act, the Dawes Act, breaking up the reservations. All of this stuff feeds into who I am today. My grandparents went to boarding schools… [and] my parents had less to pass on to me and my brothers. Moving into the Cities, we were involved with the Native community in town but also with the whites and blacks and Mexicans. My worldview is unique to me, and I paint what I know and understand.” 

One particularly succinct bit of social satire is 2014’s UnTruthful. The Lone Ranger and Tonto sit on their horses amid a fevered landscape of Fauvist Expressionism. Tonto proclaims “You lied to me!” The masked cowboy, painted in swift, thick strokes, replies simply, “Get used to it.” 

This style of portraiture developed back in 2005, when he created a painting every single day of the year, experiencing a stylistic breakthrough when he sped up the process one night after a long, exhausting day. He ended that year with 430 finished pieces, and now his studio is still filled with faces, rectangles of blue and purple on every wall, homemade masks and painted figurines on every table. When I ask who these people, these characters are, again he’s noncommittal. “Just creative portraits,” he says with a shrug. “They weren’t anybody, but they turned into something. For me the subject matter was the color and the brushstroke.”

Bayou Portraits, oil on paper, 2017

Some are funny, some charming, some ghoulish, some ghastly. Denomie paints with love but doesn’t shy away from depicting ugliness, something that is sadly in no short supply. The news that morning had been of the drone strike on Qassem Soleimani and the devastating wildfires in Australia. We start talking politics, and I ask him how he feels about the future. "Not good."

Maybe that’s why the humor helps. A spoonful of sugar for a terminal disease. I notice a recurring motif in one of his paintings: fluffy clouds painted to look like miniature atomic explosions — literally mushroom clouds. I ask if this is a deliberate commentary, but he says it’s just a shape he noticed one day driving to work. “I love cloudgazing," he adds. This is an artist who is paying attention, noticing the details in the world around him: in the news, in his dreams, in nature, and perhaps most importantly in his own practice. Inspiration can be as simple as a ballpoint pen running out of ink mid-drawing, suddenly revealing a new way to make marks.

On my way out, driving back up the winding path away from his house, I catch a glimpse of something I had completely missed on the way in: slight rolling hills in the distance exactly like those in so many of his paintings. They have shown up in every color imaginable, in foregrounds and backgrounds, sometimes turned into nipple-topped bosoms, but the shapes are unmistakable. 

It reminds me of something he said earlier about politics, but it applies to so much more. “When you’re painting honestly, everything around you will come out in your work.” 

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Photo by Rik Sferra.

Visiting an artist’s studio can be like wading into another person’s obsessions. To stand in Chris Larson’s warehouse-sized space, you might think his passion is, quite simply, stuff. There’s just so much of it.

Larson works out of an airplane hangar of a studio right off I-94 in St. Paul, once used as storage for the mattress store one floor beneath. Now the studio acts primarily as a staging ground for Larson’s large scale projects, as well as — again — storage space, this time for the artist’s friends. And their stuff. Boxes and piles and pallets of stuff. There are the occasional remnants of Larson’s older sculptures and installations, but most of it is somebody else’s. 

Some of it — like a stack of giant canvases from a local painter, or the baby grand piano near the entrance — comes from friends in the midst of transitions to new spaces. A large chunk of it is the property of the late Grant Hart, a close friend and collaborator of Larson’s as well as the drummer for local punk legends Hüsker Dü, who stored all of his possessions here after a house fire in 2011. (This pile later formed the backdrop for an installation at the Walker Art Center.) Next to that is a tall stack of sheetrock, leftovers from when Larson sectioned off part of his studio as a soundproof practice space for Awesome Rocker Girls, a kids' music program he created with Lori Barbero from Babes in Toyland. 

Still from Land Speed Record, 2016. Total running time 26:35. Video of Grant Hart's belongings, stored in Chris Larson's studio after a house fire. The video was paired with a recording of Hart's drum track from Hüsker Dü's 1981 live album of the same name.

The list goes on, as do the piles, neatly hugging the walls like bleachers at a gym. But the real show is center court. There you’ll find — surprise — more stuff. This isn’t storage though; this is an active laboratory, where the artist is building, arranging, and playing with the materials that make up his current project: an open-ended cultural investigation of a garment factory in Smithville, Tennessee. 

“It’s probably the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on,” he says, soft-spoken and thoughtful throughout our entire visit. “There are so many arms and legs to this project that I think it’s going to take me a long time to unwrap this one.”

Funded by fellowships from both the McKnight and Guggenheim Foundations and research funding from the University of Minnesota, Larson has spent the past year and a half traveling to and from Smithville and spending time in the abandoned basement factory that used to house 300 seamstresses. They made clothes for companies like Calvin Klein, Burberry, Converse, and — in the end — Ralph Lauren, who took over operations before abruptly moving production overseas in the mid-‘90s. The factory all but closed. 

The facility eventually found new life making uniforms for the US military, a job that legally cannot be outsourced. But the damage had been done to the community, and the basement workshop remained shuttered, collecting decades of dust while garment production restarted upstairs.

During a sabbatical from his teaching position at the U of M, Larson immersed himself in the Smithville community, getting to know the workers, spending time in the factory, even subscribing to the local newspaper. “You can tell it’s a challenged town,” he says. And he’s brought no small amount of it back to St. Paul, all from that one basement.

At left: A collection of sewing machine tabletops, salvaged from Smithville. Right: hand-written shelving labels for thread colors. Photos by the author.

Scattered in controlled bursts across the studio floor, there is the stuff: thousands of spools of thread, a small army of industrial sewing machines, military uniforms rejected for minor defects, beige metal speakers, a pile of brooms, handwritten ledgers… again, the list goes on.  

“The residue of labor that’s on these things is just incredible,” he says, talking about a collection of canvas-wrapped table extensions hanging on the wall. It's an amazing collection of items big and small, many of them weathered by time and use, still smelling of lint and machine oil. He even schlepped back the bathroom doors, each one showing wear and tear from decades of use.

It’s fascinating to visit an artist while they’re still chewing on an idea. Larson is smack in the middle of this project, still playing with materials, still trying to get a handle on where his intervention as an artist can have meaning and impact. For Larson, this isn't mere "stuff." These objects and archives are so much more, not only in their history but in their future. "Everything in my studio," he says, "has the potential to become art-making materials." He's brought these items back mindfully, not at random. And although it’s clear that he is still in the experimental phase, his intention is straightforward: “I want to celebrate the work they did down in that space.” 

One such experiment is a concentrated burst of red thread wrapped from one sewing machine to another, fanning out taut like deconstructed muscle fibers. It’s six miles of thread, he tells me, meticulously and meditatively strung back and forth by hand. He’s done the same to machines in the Smithville basement, creating the beginnings of an on-site installation in addition to his studio work here.

“Now, as you walk down to the old factory space, it’s like an explosion of color. We brought 60 of the current garment employees down there, and they were all like, ‘This is amazing. If this is art, I’m all in.’” 

Top: Larson's installation in the factory basement in Smithville, TN. Below: A view of the artist's St. Paul studio, with various ongoing experiments in material and form. Second photo by the author.

There are several other experiments ongoing with the spools, the clothes, the polo shirt patterns, and more. “I think 25% of what I do in the studio makes it out the door,” he says, talking about what ends up officially becoming Art. “Most does not.” 

In the center of it all sits a life-size recreation of the factory’s basement hallways, proportionally correct but twisted like a Rubik’s Cube. It’s an Escher-esque jungle gym of passages turned on their sides and stairways leading to nowhere, and the whole thing may itself be a dead end. “I’ve switched gears,” he says, pointing to other ongoing experiments, “but for now I’m going to keep it. It’s still important to me.”

Whether this strange structure “makes it out the door” or not, it does point to another of Larson’s primary interests: architecture. Space and place, you might say. It’s been evident in almost all of his previous installation work, from creating a full-scale model of a local modernist home (and then burning it down) to building a New Orleans-style shotgun shack (and then coating it in ice). He has floated a house down a river, placed a replica of the Lorraine Motel sign alone in a field, and turned entire rooms upside down and inside out. In one video performance, Larson uses a crude machine — a blade attached to a scrap of wood screwed to the ground and rotated like a clockhand — to cut a perfect circular porthole through the floor. Then he climbs down into the space below, by appearances another art studio, and continues the repetitive labor. 

Studio Unhinged, 2015. Installation at the Katonah Museum of Art.

“There is meaning in the labor and the work that we do,” he quietly asserts, “regardless of what it is.” This is what connects his practice to the Smithville factory workers. His obsession is not with the stuff at all, it's with the people. It’s the friends that need a favor. It’s the kids that need a practice space. It’s the seamstress who marks her notebook methodically, endlessly, for every pair of pants she produces. You can't see the people in Larson's studio — there are no portraits or photos or sculptures of them among the sea of objects. But they are here, in Larson’s work and in their own. They’re invisible but not taken for granted, the way they are in, say, a department store. Or perhaps in the shirt on your back right now. Where was that constructed, I wonder, and by whom?

His final thought, at the end of our visit, is maybe the most concise artist statement I’ve ever heard: “What we do on this planet is important.”

It's a brutal bit of optimism, and I nod knowingly in thought. After a pause, I break into laughter and decide to meet him halfway: "I sure fucking hope so."

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The conversation between these two amazing artists and visiting curator Emily Liebert will take place Thursday, January 23rd, at 6:30pm in the Pillsbury Auditorium at Mia. For more info and to reserve tickets for this free event, visit their event page
 
To view more of the artists' work, visit their websites: Chris Larson and Bockley Gallery. All images courtesy of the artists unless otherwise noted.

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