By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo courtesy LACMA|
ONE COULD CALL ROBERT THERRIEN AN "international artist" -- his work is seen regularly at museums and festivals around the world; but rarely is it exhibited in his hometown. Represented by the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York since 1986 and more recently by Larry Gagosian in L.A., he was the subject of a major survey at the Reina Sofia in Madrid in 1992, and has been in group shows everywhere from the Pompidou to the White House. The last time his work was seen in depth in Los Angeles, however -- and he's lived here for 30 years -- was in 1984, when he had a show at MOCA shortly after it opened. But all that changes this month with the opening of "Robert Therrien" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Organized by LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky, the show revolves around six large sculptures that mark a dramatic shift in Therrien's work. The scope of this shift can be seen by comparing the LACMA show with seven Therrien works presently on view at MOCA as part of the exhibition "Panza: The Legacy of a Collector." The MOCA works, all from the '80s, are discreetly minimal forms rendered in somber colors. The six new, wildly implausible sculptures at LACMA are anything but somber. Pivoting on a flamboyant distortion of scale, they include three fake beards that are 15 feet high, 15 beds that have been connected end to end and configured to form a spiral, and a stack of gigantic bright-blue plates and bowls.
"Most of my work grows out of things I've been thinking about for so long that I can't even remember the original source," says the 52-year-old artist during an interview at his studio near USC. "It's a vocabulary I developed long ago, and although at one point I could've told you how many elements were in it, it's been expanding since 1991, when I started using photography again as a drawing tool."
A tall, quiet man with a doleful face and a dry sense of humor, Therrien is a solitary sort who seems content to spend his time mulling over his private obsessions in his studio, where he also lives. The central feature of the studio -- a rambling complex of neat rooms that includes a small, monkish space where he sleeps, a room where his records and videotapes are archived, and a kitchen with photographs and sketches tacked to the walls -- is a trap door on the second floor that opens onto a forklift Therrien uses to lower his massive works down and out of the studio.
The awesome scale of Therrien's newer work seems at odds with the basic utilitarian forms that attract him. He gravitates toward things that are benign in their familiarity -- tables, chairs, beds, scrub brushes, dishes, snowmen, chapels -- but are also faintly perfumed with a whiff of menace. Therrien's forms are archetypal, yet though critics have tried to trace a connection back to Carl Jung, he says he has no interest in Jungian theory. It's art with an element of whimsy, but Therrien points out, "Whether the work seems playful or sinister depends a lot on how it's photographed or exhibited.
"I have a tendency to experience objects as if they have personalities," he continues. "For instance, if there are three scrub brushes, one might seem like the father, one the mother, and the other the child. It's comparable to the way people relate to pets -- and needless to say, it has the potential of blossoming into full-blown neurosis."
Therrien's giant stack of dishes isn't exactly anthropomorphized; rather, it operates like a fun-house ride, and is evocative of the dishes in the Mad Hatter's tea party. "Walking around the dishes makes you dizzy, and I knew the piece would work that way, because I'd made a small model, and even the small one did that a bit. By the time I did the large one, I knew how to engineer it to make the effect more intense."
As for the bed piece, he explains, "The spiral form is something I've played around with a lot, and that piece began with a drawing of two beds that had the effect of being flipped out of bed, or having the spins when you're drunk."
BORN IN CHICAGO IN 1947, THERRIEN later moved along with his family to Palo Alto, where he graduated from high school, then enrolled at UC Berkeley. "I was in Berkeley in the '60s, but I wasn't a hippie, because I was in art school, which seemed outside of the politics of that time. Going to art school was considered a completely meaningless pursuit in the late '60s." In 1969, Therrien transferred to Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, where he studied photography prior to settling in Los Angeles.
"When I came to L.A. in 1971 to go to USC, the city looked to me as if it were made out of cardboard," he recalls. "People say Los Angeles has a particular quality of light, but this isn't a city where you can really see, and I remember being struck by all the wide beige boulevards lined with storefronts. It struck me as an empty place. It's become incredibly crowded, of course, but I still see Southern California as oddly empty, and I think my work has been shaped by this city."