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.”

Therrien's spectacularly outlandish giant beards won't fit comfortably into any existing theory of his art. “I was looking for a sculptural subject I could approach in different ways — casting, carving, wire and so forth,” he says. “Originally, it was going to be based on Brancusi's beard, but when I got into the project I discovered his beard didn't work right; it conformed to his face, as opposed to flowing, which is what the piece needed in order to function as an independent entity. The beard I'm most excited about is the cast plastic one. Plastic has a removed quality that appeals to me, and seeing it used in a large-scale work adds another layer to it.”

Collectors, curators and city officials tend to put really large sculpture outside, so it's not surprising to hear that the Getty invited Therrien to create an exterior work for its permanent collection. “There's something about objects outside that's inherently different from the way I think about art, but I didn't want to say no, so I spent a lot of time up there looking around,” says Therrien. “I wound up feeling completely overwhelmed by the place and incapable of working that way. I know there's great outdoor sculpture, but I can't think of an artwork that's better because it's outdoors.”

Needless to say, most artists would jump at the chance to have a work permanently on view at the Getty. Therrien, however, is selective about what he devotes his energy to. “Bob chooses not to show very much, and that has a lot to do with the fact that his work isn't better known,” says Zelevansky, who's followed Therrien's work since the mid-'80s, when she first saw it at the Castelli Gallery.

“Artists who have higher profiles tend to be part of a group, and it's probably worked against me that there hasn't been a group of artists I've been associated with,” Therrien explains. “But if you start thinking about where and how your work may or may not fit into history, it can be very damaging, and I've never thought that way. When I first showed with Leo Castelli, he wanted to know who my crowd was; I told him I didn't know, and that things were different in Los Angeles.”

ROBERT THERRIEN | At the L.A. COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. | February 20­May 7

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.

LA Weekly