Damien Minton Gallery
Printmedia is an art medium that occupies fertile ground across and between disciplines. Although its’ own traditions are well established, in contemporary practice print-works oscillate between painterly printed images, sculptural objects, time based works and frequently installation as a mode of representation beyond the walls.
Pia Larsen is an artist whose practice has developed with an idiosyncratic melding of the printed image (transferred usually from metal plates), with using metal to create sculptural objects installed with a strong design sense as wall pieces.
In March 2009 she held her third exhibition at the Damien Minton Gallery in Redfern, Sydney. Entitled Interior Bodies, the exhibition consisted of three large installations of metal and paper shapes mounted on the wall, a group of framed images consisting of stencilled prints superimposed by metal cut-outs, and five finely cut zinc sculptural ‘organs’ mounted off the wall to incorporate shadows.
Her question in making this work was, ‘How much do you need of a body, how minimal a representation, to recognise the body or a bodily organ in a particular context?’
An earlier series of works examined and attempted to articulate the experience of breastfeeding and motherhood. Her critique of this led to the awareness of the controlling cultural forces of language and gender, which overlay our ‘natural bodies’.
Larsen’s interests still lie in bodies and how to represent them, and in particular how they are perceived. Her recent investigations in medical libraries and anatomical illustrations have drawn her focus closer, in Interior Bodies, to the less familiar parts of ourselves frequently unseen and not well understood.
In sourcing scientific visualisations of ‘real bodies’ she became fascinated with how our bodily organs work and the fears that confront us about our bodies when we put trust in the medical profession when disease takes hold and our bodies decline with age.
This enquiry resulted in taking ‘anatomical fragments of bodies as associative triggers to draw the viewer into the work and establish a connection between the familiar and invented forms. I see the organs in the body as beautiful, fragile, sometimes loaded with particular associations and taboos and what I’m trying to do is to find new ways to represent them.’
In the exhibition large metal forms cut from zinc or copper plate with a worked and etched surface, represent one of three organs’, the Lung/Larynx, Heart and Brain. Each of these large forms has a constellation of coloured shapes eddying around them.
Here Larsen’s imagination comes into play, extending the non-literal representation of the central form with a representation of its’ function or an associative idea. The titles are triggers for the viewer to ‘read’ the meaning of each form.
Lung/Larynx is titled Pollen and the intricately cut diagrammatic lung in shades of grey and silver of the oxidised zinc, conveys a sense of balloon-like forms inhaling and exhaling.
The surrounding constellation of pink and yellow circular shapes, are sourced from a typical pollen shape (for example, the Common Daisy and Zucchini), evoking the atmosphere we breathe in, and for many ‘sneezers’ the most graphic reminders of when the automatic and unconscious functions of our body are forcibly thrust into our awareness.
These fragments are printed from the lung’s surface onto paper and mounted to project from the wall, giving physical shape, form and colour to the invisible.
In the three installation pieces the contrast between the tones of greys and browns caused by the treatment and oxidisation of the metal surface, and the almost whimsical sense of floating coloured islands that emanate from them, provides a decorative and seductive aspect to the work. She says, I need a very clear reason to use colour so it is not gratuitous and it has involved much playing with the printing and manipulation of layers to produce the one-off images.
This strategy of visual seduction counter pointed by the challenging content that is revealed by a closer look, was something Larsen remembered as having a powerful effect, on first seeing the work of artist Fiona Hall, particularly her botanical/sardine tin series.
Pump is the title of the Heart piece, a recognisable organ with a fringe of hair-like tubes extending down the wall below. The scattered shapes are tubelike in this piece, coloured red and blue for oxygenated and deoxygenated blood. The installation although 2 dimensional, inhabits the space, in this instance snaking around the angle of the corner wall and connecting with the third piece, the Brain, entitled Cumulus.
This large copper plate representing the brain and neck, was the least recognised by viewers and Larsen confessed surprise at how unfamiliar people are with many images derived from the body.
How do you portray thought? The artist has used cloud-like shapes in green and blue, colours that perhaps suggest disembodied and ethereal forms. There is a strong sense of aerial perspective, mapping islands and continents.
These floating worlds recur again in the smaller framed works, a series of circular images evoking microscopic slides or the Petri dish, with formal elements overlaid; lines and letters and medical instruments.
Theses tools of trade, whether speculums or scissors, could convey a notion of power and authority, instruments of fear. That association is displaced by Larsen’s playful treatment of the instruments as tools to draw with, patterned objects. Stencils and cut-out aluminium shapes are superimposed on prints taken from the three big plates. Some of the printed images also evoke metal with rust-like colour and corrosive textures of etching.
The final group of sculptural organs are condensed in size, mounted out from the wall to incorporate the shadow of the zinc form. The effect is delicate and very beautiful.
For Larsen, the shadow cast by each piece is intended to represent several things; an extension of the form into 3D, a secondary layer of each form that is only visible with appropriate lighting and is constituted out of ephemeral black shadow as opposed to the shiny hard metal of the primary form, and a part of the form that is changeable. For example, with a moving light the shadow would move about, growing in scale and/or shrinking to disappear and then re-appear when next the light is shone onto the form.
In looking at the development of Larsen’s work, I was struck by the fluidity with which it moves between a design aesthetic, emphasized by the graphic shapes of metal and paper fragments and a strong assertion of the primacy of drawing. A large element of these works is drawing in solid stuff, the interplay of lines and shapes of metal and paper.
Larsen is the daughter of two well-known jewellers, so the awareness of metal as a primary material, rather than merely a support as in a printing plate, has doubtless influenced her practice. She discusses what seemed a natural development in dissembling the metal plates, (her recycled redundant etching plates) turning them into small sculptures.
Working with the optimum possibilities of the gallery space as the work was assembled for the first time, she wanted to put the experimental first and to allow risk. There was always a possibility of failure but as she said, that challenge is growth for the artist. Having the show she observes, provided the opportunity to understand her own practice, realising also that much of the meaning invested by the maker is not something the artist can determine as accessible for the viewer.
This show reveals much more confidence in the establishment of her artistic direction.
Larsen’s achievement in this exhibition was to conceive a series of large two-dimensional installations, which in the dynamism of their movement and colour, animate the whole space, even though their 3D projection is minimal. She drew people into an investigative journey about perceptions of bodies and forms of knowledge that define them.
Honorary Professor Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney