The real world can find itself enmeshed with the surreal in ArtNow 2021 artist Larson’s work
When he relocated to Alva in the mid-2010s to become director of visual art at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, one of Kyle Larson’s early exhibitions in his new home state was titled Better Off Lost. After living in Sacramento and Boston for much of his adult life, small-town life required adjustments, but his anchor in a time of transition was art. It always had been, since he was a young boy watching his grandmother paint landscapes back in California.
“My grandmother, Concha Fernandez Garcia, was an artist, but never went to school for it until later in her life, when she took a few night classes at a local community college,” said Larson, who has three works on view in ArtNow 2021, which closes Sept. 13. “I grew up surrounded by her paintings of old missions and the Sonoran Desert, where she and my grandfather grew up, and everyone always told me I had her talent for drawing and painting. As a child it was something I felt I was good at, and quiet time to myself to focus on drawing was always a necessity."
“I don't think it was ever a conscious decision that art would be my career,” he said. “It's just something I've always been involved in, something I've always gravitated towards. It's not anything I ever planned for, and growing up, I didn't really even understand it was something I could do.”
Larson’s path toward professional painting and academia was made much more visible during his time at California State University, Sacramento, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and a Master of Arts in painting. He credits his professors with showing him how he could make a life as a painter.
“I was fortunate to have amazing art professors,” he said. “Tom Monteith, Brenda Louie, Ian Harvey, Rachel Clarke and Elaine O'Brien challenged and changed the way I thought about painting and art in general; that it is an intellectual pursuit, a way of life and an exploratory, life-long pursuit of searching and discovery. It was also the art spaces themselves that drew me in — the studios on campus — where I'd spend most my time outside of work and classes, where I could always find other students making work, where I truly felt like I was at home.”
Larson’s work is usually large scale and characterized by surrealism and symbolism. It often features animals like coyotes and alligators as urban sprawl and climate change push some of them out of their habitats and into the lives of humans. The real world can find itself enmeshed with the surreal in Larson’s work, including one of his ArtNow 2021 pieces, The Painter’s Dilemma.
In the piece, a blue-skinned artist is painting in repose, his left arm cradling a wild dog and his outstretched leg waiting prey for an approaching alligator. It is a classic Homerian Scylla and Charybdis, or “between a rock and a hard place” scenario, played out against an apocalyptic landscape. Larson said he started the painting at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it shows.
“The inherent predicament and notions of mortality were definitely swirling around my head,” he said. “I had been reflecting a lot about growing up in a Mexican American, Catholic environment and household, where notions of sacrifice and burdens to carry — self-sacrifice, saints and martyrs — were always greatly emphasized. It's definitely a painting about painting, about the act of painting and what we give to the world versus what we keep for ourselves, hold precious, protect. Painting as a way to confront one's mortality while impending doom brews in the background. The self as a collection of separate, disjointed parts, mobility hindered as a result, unable to move and caught in a perpetual cycle of self-destruction. I was also thinking about the absurdity of it all, perhaps a bit of melodrama, being involved in the self-reflective, self-proclaimed heroic act of painting, but then just dying of COVID, a natural disaster or some other peripheral danger that I saw coming but couldn't protect myself from while I toiled away in my studio.”
And he does toil. During a one-month residency at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in 2019, Larson created an elaborate multimedia triptych titled Moving Through, Within, and Without, as well as several pieces in paint and charcoal based on places and people he encountered in MASS MoCA’s hometown, North Adams, Mass. His work ethic was inspired by his professors, particularly at Boston University, where he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree.
“The professors had their studios right next to ours,” he said. “Seeing them on a daily basis grapple with their work next door to my studio confirmed and validated the endeavor for me. John Walker, the head of the graduate program at BU at the time, who also had his studio on the same floor, had — and continues to have, at age 81 — an incredible work ethic, and also an infectiously romantic view of the history and act of painting that touched me deeply. He'd always talk about the magic of turning mud into air, the transformative qualities of paint, which I still think a lot about.”
That influence was converted into action. Larson’s studio is located adjacent to his office at NWOSU, and the creative process of painting connects with his duties as a professor, where he can be a close influence to the students he now teaches.
“I'm fortunate to have my studio in the same hallway as my office and studio classrooms on campus at NWOSU,” he said. “So, when I'm not teaching or in my office, I'm in my studio drawing or painting. I feel lucky to have a job where I get to work with and serve students who want to learn about art and sharpen their creative voices. Being surrounded by fellow makers gives me a lot of energy to continue my studio work, especially as drawing and painting can be such a solitary act. I am definitely a night owl and tend to paint in the evenings and late into the night. I've also always felt being an artist is a subversive way of life, which greatly appealed to me.”
Time is running out to experience the work of Larson and his fellow Oklahoma artists firsthand in ArtNow 2021. Grab your free tickets to see the exhibition, which closes Sept. 13.
Images: Kyle Larson, The Painter's Dilemma, 2020. Oil on canvas. 78 x 96 inches. Collection of the artist. © Kyle Larson. Photo courtesy of the artist. Kyle Larson, Moving Through, Within, and Without, 2019. Collage, India ink, charcoal, acrylic, cutouts on paper. 8 x 16 feet. Collection of the artist. © Kyle Larson. Photo courtesy of the artist. Installation photo, Kyle Larson, The Road Home, 2021. Oil on canvas. 60 x 72 inches. Collection of the artist. © Kyle Larson. Photo by Trayson Conner.
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