In a ritual repeated countless times since its dedication in 1877 in the presence of Brigham Young, the Manti Temple serves as backdrop for the celebratory portrait of a newly wed couple. Emerging from the venerable Gothic and French Revival masterpiece in which they have just been sealed to each other for eternity, the bride and groom appear in the traditional wedding attire they will wear to meet the public. But first they stand together, with the solid battlements and towering mansard roofs looming behind them, and memorialize the moment in an image as full of otherworldly symbols as visual facts. It’s a formula that emerged over the years and has been thoroughly explored, making it a challenge to find a new twist. Except, that is, for Adam Ned Larsen, an artist who specializes in reconfiguring the most mundane, familiar, and routinely over-looked signs into fresh versions that demand attention and thought.
Larsen is an artist who works in multiple mediums, often several at the same time, but he is best known as a maker of instantly recognizable narrative prints. “Sweet Nuptials,” which he made to celebrate the wedding of close friends, twists the conventions of the wedding portrait twice. First, while it shows the couples hands close up, it’s not to display the ring. Instead, they exchange a nuptial gift of Pez candies, symbolic of the sweets they have offered and will continue to offer each other. More importantly, the toy figures in antique wedding clothes, such as might be seen atop the wedding cake, stand in for the bride and a groom by representing not the adults who wed, but the children who dreamed they would one day become those adults and take adult vows. The figures represented are authentic, made by the Swiss manufacturer and found by Larsen during the meticulous research that begins most of his works, and the finished print displays some of the artist’s most characteristic gestures: he extends the role of toys—tools children will use to imagine themselves grown up—to include their roles as talismanic icons for adults. He celebrates hands as both subjects and makers of human artifacts. And he stirs in a fertile mixture of personal history and daily life as both context and subject matter of these most reverently-made objects.
Family roots run deep in our community. Before appearing here, these words passed muster with the great-great-grandson of Brigham Young’s coach driver. Similarly, while Adam Ned Larson was born in Odgen, and attended Weber State before study in Wichita, Kansas, as a child he played in an Ephraim house built by his ancestors within sight of the Manti Temple. He now lives in that house with his wife Amy and their children, and points with awe to floor planks nailed in place by his great-grandfather. But not all roots grow towards the same aquifer; when Larsen added a new kitchen to the house, the floor boards he laid were salvaged from the demolition of Snow College’s old gym, from the very floor where he and Amy danced their first dance together as courting students years ago.
Larsen, a compact, perennially youthful man with all-American good looks and seemingly endless energy, usually arrives at Snow College—often on foot or bicycle— before eight in the morning to open the school’s art gallery. Twelve hours later, after a day of classes and meetings, during which he will barrel up and down the corridors dozens of times in his trademark printer’s apron marked with the chop design he created to mark the school’s output, he’s likely to still be about, burning the late-night oil required to make studio time for his own art. He’s kept something close to this schedule since he arrived at Snow in 1999. Then a dozen or so art majors were taught by two full-time faculty and two adjuncts — Larsen and his longtime friend, sculptor Brad Taggart, who shared an office and dreamed of transforming the program if they ever got the chance. That chance came sooner than expected, as first Osral Allred and then Carl Purcell resigned their duties in order to paint full time and teach privately.
Their replacements wasted no time in setting up to teach the basic skills they thought essential for artists, but which have been abandoned in most American art schools. Using a traditional definition of art that requires craft as well as concept, they set their sights on displacing the exhausted hegemony of late twentieth-century conceptualism. Their curriculum empowers the artist who has an idea to immediately give it a two- or three-dimensional form, rather than depending on found or borrowed imagery or hiring someone to execute what the artist conceives. The idea struck a chord among upcoming students, and the Department of Visual Art became one of the fastest growing programs at Snow, quintupling enrollment in a few years, doubling the faculty and employing ten part-time instructors. In the summer of 2007, after five years as chairman, Adam Larsen handed the reins to Brad Taggart, a gesture more symbolic than anything else. In fact, the two men’s close working relationship had led the students long ago to give them a single, efficient name: “Bradam.”
While he stepped down to free time for his own goals, those were not limited to making art. Larsen is a tinkerer: someone, in his case, who wants everything he comes in contact with to conform to his idea that an efficient design should, according to the principles of aesthetics, be pleasing to the senses as well as the mind. A year after resigning as chairman he took over Snow College’s art gallery, a hopeless hybrid of meeting hall and exhibition space through which canned traveling art shows were annually trucked, between displays drawn from the school’s collection of predictable landscapes. After rebuilding the space, he forged a new schedule of exhibits assembled—and even of works created—specifically for the gallery. Adrian van Suchtelen and Everett Ruess are important Utah artists who received comprehensive retrospectives, while more recently Larsen asked twenty prominent artists from around the state to create new works on the traditional theme of the Nativity.
Of course putting together an original exhibition earned Larsen the right to include something of his own. His version of the Nativity depicts the event as it might be recreated in play by children telling the story using their toys, including three more authentic Pez candy dispensers: a wise king, a shepherd, and an angel. While it’s not unusual for Larsen to reprise an idea that works for him, so that elements may repeat in divergent contexts—something like the way the eye in a peacock’s head appears also in his tail—formal divergence generally strikes the eye before the mind recognizes familiar subjects. Stefanie Dykes, a founder of Saltgrass Printmakers and a fellow printmaker, says, “The thing I’ve always admired about Adam is the way he completely reinvents himself for each new project. That and the meticulous craft of everything he makes.” What she means is that he may manifest an idea as a print, a drawing, an artist’s book, a sculpture, a painting, or some variation not seen before. It may be carved, painted, printed, machined, or assembled from uncertain origins. It will foreground the artist’s awareness, rather than the specific phenomenon being observed. It will bridge dimensions, the way bas-relief is both a two- and a three-dimensional art. And it will bear allegiance to his previous works primarily by being so well made as to challenge the conviction that human hands alone could be responsible. The trajectory of most artists is like a married couple’s lovemaking: at first the artist tries everything, but with the passage of time, he simplifies until everything he makes ends up an oil painting or a marble sculpture. Adam Ned Larsen is like Man Ray, a quintessential modernist who puts as much thought into the kind of object he will make as he does in what it will portray.
An installation that will debut this summer at BYU illustrates how this process works. Like most members of his community, Larsen’s family members form the near horizon of his perception. When he was young, three of them—coincidentally all uncles—were forced to make extreme versions of the sort of choices we all face in life. Two assumed hazardous vocations. A third, born with a neurological condition requiring life-threatening treatment, had to choose between life-long solitude or an attenuated life among loved ones. All three died prematurely, having made unwilling choices, and met deaths that in the artist’s eye revealed universal truths about life. Seeking to memorialize these predicaments and their outcomes, Larsen turned to something from his student days that had become a perennial preoccupation.
One of Larsen’s favorite artists is the enigmatic and idiosyncratic H.C. Westermann, who influenced many of today’s artists and whose picture appears on the cover of The Beatles’ album, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Westermann (1922–1981), at various times a lumberjack and an acrobat before becoming an artist, served in two wars and emerged a fierce critic of militarism and the alleged advances of modern life. His art cobbled together a bridge between printmaking and sculpture, wherein he created menacing images and enigmatic objects whose titles invoked mystery, death, brinksmanship, and similar threats that may have influenced Larsen’s early work on nuclear proliferation and growing up under the everyday threat of annihilation. Westermann also brings to mind two other Western artists, Ed Kienholtz and Nancy Reddin, whose distinctive approach gave rise to assemblage, the making of new art from collaged and modified found objects. These related schools of art have merged in Adam Ned Larsen’s art, producing works that simultaneously exploit the associations and sense of reality found in scavenged materials and transform them into new objects and associations.
In Larsen’s previous sculptures a wooden box might be covered with doors that could be opened by pulling chains to reveal connected, vaguely witty images printed on the wood. In “Spit Propulsion,” a sculpture shaped like a book with an aircraft nacelle and propeller emerging through the cover, a child’s fantasy of flight is recreated from memory through riveted aluminum and scavenged gauges. But this new medium finds its voice in the three small coffins Larsen has fashioned to memorialize his lost uncles. Here are three exquisite wooden boxes that could sit on the desks of powerful executives, or be taken for the precision tool cases treasured by skilled workers and scientists. Lifting their lids, though, turns out to be like peeling back skin, under which the insides are anatomical diagrams of the human bodies whose remains their larger counterparts bore into the earth. Each simultaneously represents itself as both a machine and a living organism. The extraordinary skill and painstaking effort evident in their fabrication brings the viewer close to the awe felt in the presence of living things, even as it makes clear the impassible gulf that separates things from beings. Still, it is we who die, not our machines, and the recycling evident here is very different from what happens to our bodies and, we may hope, our souls.
Larsen raises a complex set of ideas, and the objects that carry them offer more than the experience of visible beauty. These are truly aesthetic pleasures: a mixture of ideas and feelings that get under the skin and unsettle viewers, surpassing the merely creepy feelings so popular with the audience for so many of today’s books and movies, reaching toward the realm of what in the past was considered, and called, “sublime.”
By invoking the sublime, Larsen could be casting back nostalgically to art’s past: to a golden age when now-suspicious qualities like ‘beauty’ were in vogue. Or he could be looking forward to the return of appreciation for such once-universal virtues as craft, the balance of form and content, and an interaction of abstract, representational, and concrete impulses. It’s ironic (a virtue of the previous, 20th century) that an artist with such strong ties to his own community finds it is still difficult to be a prophet in ones hometown, and so he looks to a broader audience. Works like “Party Favors,” a print satirizing American politics, and “Triple Dead Heat,” a sewn print, were made to be shown at Saltgrass Printmakers in Salt Lake City. Both play on one of his favorite toy concepts: the figurine that collapses when a button in the base is pushed, only to pop back up when the button is released. “Lernen Sie Deutsch,” a German language primer with a cuckoo clock mechanism added, was one of several artist’s books recently shown at the Salt Lake City Library. His uncles’ coffins will debut together this summer at BYU. In the past, before New York City became both the place that art was made and the place where it was appreciated, artists routinely sent their children out into the world to make a name for themselves and their makers. Adam Ned Larsen is determined to see his works reach as large an audience as possible, and so if he has anything to say about it, his neighbors’ loss will be our gain.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.