Where Painting Ends and Sculpture Begins - Ted Larsen in an Interview

September 12, 2019

Ted Larsen and I had the chance to talk about some of the processes of art-making and seeing anew. Interestingly, his small sculptural forms are actually ‘painting’-inspired, despite his rarely picking up of a brush.

We were able to agree that painting is as object as sculpture, as well as knocking out a few interesting takes on the hybridizing of painting and sculpture.

Left Ted Larsen - True Fiction, 2016 Right Ted Larsen - New Stone Age, 2018
Left: Ted Larsen - True Fiction, 2016. Salvage Steel, Marine-grade Plywood, Silicone, Vulcanized Rubber, Hardware, 65 x 60 x 8 cm. Private Collection, Basel, Switzerland / Right: Ted Larsen - New Stone Age, 2018. Salvage Steel, Marine-grade Plywood, Silicone, Vulcanized Rubber, Hardware, 28 x 22 x 15 cm. Private Collection, Dallas, Texas

In Conversation with Ted Larsen

Brent Hallard: Your works made from salvaged steel come across as ideations of the space we inhabit. They are also read as compressed form. And while they’re very much anchored to the wall, the scale is seldom larger than a couple of palms. These architectural bits of the mind are also quite tactile, and, in some cases, fuel the desire to run your fingers down them. And, despite their single-digit dimensions, the work is expansive, blowing out all expectations of scale. Where do they come from?

Ted Larsen: While the work I make does have dimensional qualities, sometimes to the extent that they become free-standing work, I don't approach it as sculpture. I was trained as a painter and still consider the work as "painting."

I reject the brush, but not painting itself. Working with pre-painted surfaces allows me a way to appropriate paint conceptually as my “own paint.” Metaphorically, these pre-painted surfaces also allow me to reference art history, one of my abiding loves. By covering the form in these pre-painted surfaces, they become shaped paintings.

Because these objects inhabit the wall, a place traditionally occupied by painting, they reference painting, and yet function beyond that. Sculpture holds the possibility of magic; things can appear or disappear depending on where you stand in relation to the work. Painting doesn’t function like this; no matter where you stand, the painting will always look essentially the same. I love the absolute quality of painting and the endless possibilities of seeing sculpture poses. One of the many things my work addresses is where painting ends and where sculpture begins. I am involved with hybridizing them to see what possibilities can emerge.

BH: Especially, with hard-edge abstraction (US term) and concrete art (Europe’s historic term) you still need to move around to get the whole picture. When it’s in the zone of the flat and close to the wall (and I notice you have been doing some of this, recently) the scrutiny is whether it’s going to be elastic enough to present a new value as the viewer shifts position, and then spring back to a frontal clarity. How have you been going with these new flat pieces?

TL: Paintings are objects. They are things placed upon the wall generally. They have sides and a back. Most of paintings history was in service of the portrayal of imagery. These images served a didactic purpose. They were essentially illustrations of some larger idea, philosophy, religious meaning, of representation.

As you know well, there was a very large break with this tradition in the early 20th Century that came from Eastern and Northern Europe. This is the origins of what we now call abstraction. However, in truth, painting has always been abstract. Is there anything more abstract than a photo-realistic painting of a bowl of cherries? We know we aren't looking at an actual bowl of cherries, but a representation of them in a bowl.

On the other hand, what could be more real than a color field painting of a red square? It is exactly what it is, a red square!

One of the issues painting addresses, even in most concrete forms, is a figure-ground relationship. Often there is the illusion in painting of something sitting in front of something else and, in essence, this is that relationship. Going back to the red square; while ‘traditional’ imagery might have that relationship within the painted surface, the red square forms that relationship with the wall (and therefore the architecture of the space it inhabits). The red square sits in front of the wall; we have a different understanding of the figure-ground relationship. In the early 20th Century, these figure to ground (or we could say background) relationships became a source of inquiry in how painting was conceived, perceived, received by the audience as well as how it addressed architecture. Malevich was [the] artist to take this major step in The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings when he placed his Black Suprematic Square, 1915, in the corner of the room. It was one of the first times an artist made a painting comprised of it most basic compositional elements (color, line, texture, etc. are the basic compositional elements and these became subject matter in this 'new' painting school) and placed said work into space in a way that challenged that space. It was really killing two birds with one stone.

I am going to say something which I can immediately challenge as problematic, but it still holds some truth. No matter where you stand in relation to a painting, it generally looks the same. Painting concerns itself with the painted image. It generally occurs on a flat surface placed parallel to the wall and one that wall. If we turn the painting around, we stop seeing a painting and we are now seeing that back of the it - the underpinnings, if you will. In the 20th Century, artists became increasingly interested in these underpinnings. They concerned themselves with issues entirely in a way that late 19th Century began to deal with, but didn't address wholly. Light became a subject matter not only how light functioned, but light itself. Line became a subject matter. Color became a subject matter. Simple color relationships became subjects and so on and so forth. It was a distillation process. Artists followed the path of epistemological inquiry that writers had begun just before the advent of Abstraction.

You asked how my recent flat pieces are going. I made some flat, 2-D work a few years ago and while I was pleased with them, I wasn't entirely satisfied with them. I recently made a few more, but this time I did something more to them. The compositions in the recent flat pieces are not dissimilar to the earlier pieces, but I took them to my bandsaw and cut a large shape into the surface of them. I then reattached the cut shape back into the outer piece. It was a disruption of the flat surface that interfered with its visual integrity that pointed towards its physicality It stopped being just a 'painting' and pointed towards being 'sculptural.' I am not sure where these will go from here, which is exactly as it should be. Uncertainty and states of provisionality interest me. Knowing where things stand is less interesting to me than where they might lead.

Left Ted Larsen - Past Is Prologue, 2012 Right Ted Larsen - Mean Smile, 2019
Left: Ted Larsen - Past Is Prologue, 2012. Salvage Steel and Rivets, 30 x 20 x 18 cm. The Rose Collection, Dallas, Texas / Right: Ted Larsen - Mean Smile, 2019. Salvage Steel, Marine-grade Plywood, Silicone, Vulcanized Rubber, Hardware, 28 x 23 x 2 cm. Consigned to FOLD Gallery, London, England

Talking Titles

BH: "Real Magic" sits on the wall with just a white and orange element, and some angles that not only give the form its three-dimensional presence but for me, it questions the frontality while addressing it. The wall it sits on is flat, so then, perhaps, what I’m seeing is a rendition of the thing, while, pragmatically, is also the thing that we can touch. I’m guessing the title is suggesting something about this?

TL: The flat frontal face and the ramped angles coming from the wall and descending into it create an all-important dynamic with the wall, which as part of the architecture of the space means it articulates with the physical space itself. I am so pleased you see that.

Earlier, we touched on the word "architecture”. For me, this word can be taken literally or can be metaphorical. I prefer the latter with the exception of how the work can be understood in part by the place it inhabits, or how it inhabits that space. The metaphorical meaning is more interesting. Words have such specific meanings. They are very precise. When we talk about how ideas are constructed, we can say the "architecture" of thought. I like that.

Titles! Almost all of the titles are oxymorons. I enjoy how two words can modify one another and yet be oppositional. For me, it is a little bit of humor as well as misdirection. The work itself hopefully misdirects or at least can be somewhat conflictual in nature. Giving the work titles can add to this understanding. If it does, great, if not, great!

BH: So, the titles are quite playful. I particularly like "Divided Unity" for the reason that you have three forms unified by a bunch of flat colored lines. Then with a true-to-form flat work, which shares similar linework, the title shifts to "Anarchy Rules". Each title, and work, expresses a light-hearted resolution of duality–with a telltale title the only standing remnant of this struggle or conflict.

TL: Some say struggle and conflict are in our very nature. I don't know about that, but while the creative process isn't a struggle for me, the actual act of making the work often is quite laborious and can have its conflicts.

In our contemporary life, we seem to take all of the wrong stuff seriously and the things which really matter we don't seem to place much energy into them. We have it all turned around. It is sort of ridiculous to me. Perhaps the idea to use these sorts of titles come out these observations. Strange as it might be, the process of titling the work doesn't have much to do with the work itself to me. I set up a strategy for the ways of making the work, and these are the modalities, or what I call ‘games with rules’. I work on several pieces at once, and while making these groups of works, I am trying to subvert the rules I have imposed on myself without actually breaking them. For instance, I may decide on making three-block forms using two sides cut at 30 degrees and two sides cut a 90, which assemble without redundancy or repetition. Then, over the top, lay ‘painted’ forms which either reinforce the observation of them being three blocks, deny the individual blocks. You may notice how there are three forms in Divided Unity all held together with colored lines. In Kosher Ham or Authentic Reproduction, I have a similar group of three forms, but each is resolved in very different ways, showing the plasticity of my aesthetic process. While I am a formalist, I am not necessarily a serialist.

BH: I notice some new work coming up on social media... what is going on in the studio?

TL: Ah, Social media! The bane of our existence! No, really. While I no longer have any involvement with Facebook, I do maintain an Instagram presence. Not sure if it is a good idea, or not, but it does allow the work to be experienced by more people.

I don’t show images of work in process or development anywhere. It takes me a long time to understand whether the work is complete and succeeds. I try to be somewhat insulated by other’s opinions on my work and showing work before its completion could have the tendency to warp my process. Also showing it on Instagram could have that same result. I have to be careful with what I allow into my private life. Making work is very private while the results are not. It is important to be careful.

That said, I am experimenting with some new things right now. They’re very paired down aesthetically, but quite rich visually. I am a little resistant to over-explain these new things for the reasons we first talked about in our conversation—how words have such specific meanings and all of that stuff we went through earlier. Suffice it to say, the work is foreign to me right now. It will take time for me to assess it and see if it meets my qualifications, which I am not even entirely sure how to describe as the work is so foreign. I am sure you know what I mean.

BH: Hmm, I’m trying to imagine what’s coming next.

Left Ted Larsen - New Routine, 2015 Right Ted Larsen - Anarchy Rules, 2019
Left: Ted Larsen - New Routine, 2015. Salvage Steel, Marine-grade Plywood, Silicone, Vulcanized Rubber, Hardware, 61 x 54 x 27 cm. The Rose Collection, Dallas, Texas / Right: Ted Larsen - Anarchy Rules, 2019. Salvage Steel, Marine-grade Plywood, Silicone, Vulcanized Rubber, Hardware, 28 x 23 x 2 cm. Consigned to FOLD Gallery, London, England

Featured images: Ted Larsen in his studio in Santa Fe, 2015; Ted Larsen's Studio, 2012; Ted Larsen - Fast Idle, 2015. Salvage Steel, Marine-grade Plywood, Silicone, Vulcanized Rubber, Hardware, 8 x 40 x 12 cm. Private Collection, Aspen, Colorado; Ted Larsen - Awfully Nice, 2016. Salvage Steel, Marine-grade Plywood, Silicone, Vulcanized Rubber, Bees Wax, Hardware, 10 x 84 x 10 cm. Private Collection, Geneva, Switzerland. All images courtesy the author.