When I googled Draper artist Bryan Larsen, whose work is now on exhibit at the Rose Wagner Arts Center in Salt Lake, I found, in addition to his current website, a few galleries that carry his art, an old web page of his, a collaborative site with Damon Denys, and a number of group sites bearing names like “rational art” or “romantic realism.” When looking at these pages I began reading things like “I began to suspect that fine visual art was dead. No one seemed interested in teaching students how to draw well, or paint well”; or he talked about creating “artwork that I considered worthy of being called Fine Art,” and I saw his almost militant emphasis on use of materials like linen and rabbit skin glue, I began to conjure up the image of a reactionary young artist, railing against modernism and calling for a return to the art of a different century. So, when I asked Larsen to meet me at the Rose Wagner for an interview, I figured it would be an interesting hour or so. When he showed up on a sunny afternoon in late September, his two-year old son in tow, I was presently surprised to find Larsen wasn’t quite the black-shirted crank my suspicious mind had invented.
Larsen creates meticulously rendered images filled with figures, buildings and machinery. His general philosophy about art remains the same as it did when he started painting ten years ago – he believes in a strong work-ethic and a dedication to craft, and is propelled to make art that portrays the heroic in a modern setting. But as I discovered during our conversation, not only is he articulate, generous, engaged and determined, but he has, by his own account, matured somewhat, and has opened himself to things he had previously shuttered away.
Larsen grew up with two interests as a child: art and mathematics. Both have woven themselves in the sometimes circuitous path he has followed in becoming an artist. All through his school years Larsen was involved in art classes, and his involvement in the Sterling Scholar program in high school gave him access to recruiters from the art schools around the state. Ultimately, Larsen decided on Utah State University because in their illustration program, headed by Glen Edwards, he felt he could find the classical training in painting and drawing that he wanted to incorporate into his work.
Halfway through his program, though, Larsen quit. He says that while he was in school he began to enter shows and look around at galleries but at these venues he couldn’t find any of the type of art that he felt he wanted to do. Discouraged, he decided he would pursue a degree in engineering and would have to paint on the side.
In the meantime, Larsen moved to Salt Lake and got married. He and his wife, Sara, decided he would work while she finished her degree in geology and then he would return to school. At the same time he started to become close friends with Damon Denys, an artist he had met at Utah State, who shared his artistic philosophy and now lived in Salt Lake as well.
Denys and Larsen shared a passion for the Pre-Raphaelites. “The thing we liked about them was that they really believed that anything that was worth painting was worth painting as true to life and as perfectly as possible,” Larsen says. “If your theme was worth painting and it could be communicated in a painting then you could communicate it better if you were more precise in your technique. We really loved that idea and it was something no one was really doing.”
Not only was no one doing it, but no one, it seemed to the two young artists, was interested in it. As Larsen relates it, Denys entered a large figurative piece (Sara was the model) in a University of Utah show. “It was flawless as far as the detail was concerned,” Larsen says, “and I think he really captured this beautiful attitude in the painting. It took him six months of hard work to do it. It was prefect technically.” The piece, however, was turned down by the exhibition. The pair went back later to visit the exhibit and was surprised to see what did get in and especially what won first prize — “a metal stool with barbed wire wrapped around it and some feathers glued to it,” Larsen remembers. “I think that was the first time we were really put off by the gallery scene.”
If the artists’ consequent attitude — embodied in the sometimes dated pages I found in my google search — seems “reactionary,” it was a reaction to a real and personal experience. Larsen says the pair of artists felt Denys had been snubbed. “He had worked out the composition and technique, and spent hours in careful paint application and it’s being completely dismissed in favor of this kind of thrown together piece that we didn’t understand. We didn’t like it. We kind of decided we were going to do our own thing and screw whatever was going on in art.”
Looking back on it a decade later, Larsen is able to put the experience in perspective. “It was a student show in a University and lot of times you’re going to a get a lot of extreme stuff in a University show because that’s what students are going to do . . . It was probably a bit of a reactionary stance. We were working so hard and we felt that other artists were getting by with the least.”
Larsen thinks the art scene in Salt Lake has changed a lot since then. That change is not just local. The past decade has seen a reevaluation of a lot of art that, while paramount in the nineteenth century, was pushed — like so many aberrant gospels — to the sidelines in the canonization of modernism. Take Adolph William Bougereau, one of Larsen’s heroes, a behemoth of 19th century Salon painting; greatly admired in his own day, he was almost completely passed over in the histories of art written in the twentieth century. But open this month’s edition of Art News and you’ll find an article on Bougereau and his influence as a teacher; this is immediately followed by an article on Ai Weiwei, a Chinese, contemporary, multi-discipline artist, famous for such Dadaist acts as photographing himself dropping a Han dynasty urn. This juxtaposition of articles is a perfect example of the heterogeneous artistic discourses of the 21st century.
If the art world has changed, so has Larsen. After his wife finished her schooling, Larsen began studying Engineering at the University of Utah. He finished two years of his program when he sold his first painting. This renewed his hope that he could make a living with his art and he once again quit college. He and his wife — an active supporter of his career, designer of his website and co-blogger on their rationalart blog — made a deal that Larsen could give his art career a go for five years.
Now in year three, Larsen is optimistic about his career (with the help of his San Fransisco gallery, Quent Cordair Fine Art) and his views of art have mellowed somewhat. “I understand art is a very personal thing . . . where I was when Damon and I first started was probably a pretty young and extreme position and since then I think I’ve . . . maybe grown up a bit, seen a little bit more, tried a couple of different things, realized how difficult some techniques are, and recognized some values in some styles I maybe would have dismissed before.”
The shifts in Larsen’s thinking are small and delicate, like the brushstrokes in his paintings. His major philosophical stance hasn’t changed, and the art he loves is still the same, but his eyes have been opened to new genres and techniques.
“I had a tendency to really dismiss landscape . . . that figurative painting was the only way to go,” Larsen says, ” . . . but I think I’ve come to appreciate that you really can put a lot of emotional content and skill into those genres . . . The one thing that I still really don’t have a feel for is really abstract painting, although I am starting to think that because abstract painters eliminate all the realistic detail it makes the really good ones better at assembling compositions . . . I think that a lot of figurative, landscape and still life painters, if they were willing to study a lot of abstract painters, they would learn a lot about composition.”
Lately, Larsen has concentrated on making a shift in his own work. His earliest pieces were big paintings that represented two to three months of work, were thematically intense and very detailed — “every bit of the background painted in full focus.” Larsen’s dad was a draftsmen, when he was young he wanted to be an architect, and as you’ll see in his work, he has a love for buildings, bridges and engineering. “I love the stuff so it shows up in a lot of my paintings but I started to feel that I was so caught up in the details that I was starting to lose the real focus of the theme.” He started “to feel that there was something lacking . . . as far as the actual emotional content of the work . . . I was really relying on the background to tell everything about the image and the figures were just sort of incidental, they were sort of just a window into whatever the background was.” He began to admire the work of Bougereau, where he saw that the central elements were fully developed while secondary parts were allowed to fade away into the background.
Consequently, Larsen has been concentrating more on his figures. A number of the works in the Rose Wagner exhibit are figure studies. Some – what Larsen calls “scholastic studies” –are simple figures in a generalized background. Others depict figures, now the dominant element in the composition, gazing away from the viewer. Most often the figures are looking at technology — in the form of futuristic or contemporary buildings, aircraft, or, in a local touch, the glass reflections above the reflection pool of Salt Lake City’s dowtown library.
Larsen likes to paint the figures with their backs turned because he feels it pulls the viewers into the process of gazing; rather than gazing at the figure they too become gazers. Their object of gazing — technological developments, achievements of men — are the themes that interest Larsen. He is a fan of Ayn Rand, from whom comes the term “romantic realism.” It is her conception of the depiction of the heroic in realistic terms that informs Larsen’s aesthetic. He also sees it as akin to what the Pre-Raphaelites were attempting. “I’m taking what the Pre-Raphaelites were doing but using a modern-day mythology . . . the same romantic approach to life but do it from a modern perspective.”
Larsen admits, though, that “it can be hard to find romantic subject in modern day life” and the viewers in his paintings are gazing at an idealized world. “There are plenty of artists pointing out everything that’s wrong with the world,” Larsen says. “And there are plenty of artists just painting genre and not commenting one way or another. I think it’s easy enough for people to look around themselves in the world and see that things aren’t right and they don’t need art to confirm that for them; and if they do there are plenty of artist doing that. For me I feel that art is almost a way for people, not to escape, but to look for an ideal that isn’t what the world is but what it could be . . . to say ‘This is a possibility. Things don’t have to be like this. Things could be better.'”
Things seem to be getting better for Larsen. He is happy (which is what his son’s name, Asher, means in Hebrew), he is optimistic about his career — in year three of his five-year deal with his wife he says “so far so good” — and he is looking for ways to improve his art. The Rose Wagner exhibit has helped him develop more of a local audience. And as much work as he has put into his art and as well as his career may be doing, he is still hungry to stretch his abilities and his vision.
“I would really love to move toward a more kind of a grand sense of painting; the kind of thing that people don’t paint anymore; the big six or seven figure, or even more figures, where you’re tackling a big theme or a big story . . . but I want to move toward that with a new found subtlety.”
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.