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Chris Larson: the Whitney, the Walker, the U

November 24, 2014

A still from Larson's video Heavy Rotation

A still from Larson's video Heavy Rotation
A still from Larson's video Heavy Rotation

Minnesota-inspired artist and assistant professor Chris Larson always seems to be animated by myriad passions. One of his solo works is on display through May 28 in New York at the Whitney Biennial, one of the world's most prestigious exhibits of contemporary art.

Last spring, in the kind of weather that produced a May 1 snowfall, Chris Larson and 15 of his students worked outside near the Walker Art Center's Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, setting up the two elaborate holes they had designed and created for the annual Walker on the Green mini-golf course.

The idea for his Whitney piece, Heavy Rotation, was born in Switzerland, when he spotted a simple, circular concrete slab above an underground reservoir that had been turned into a contemporary art space. It led him to think about stacked spaces, which in turn led him to create a video in which he himself is the artist/protagonist, obsessively cutting holes in the floor then climbing down through them.These entwined roles of teacher and artist perfectly fit the assistant professor of art, who seems always to have been animated by myriad passions. He was the student who took a physics class while working toward his MFA at Yale; a sculptor who is also a photographer, illustrator, videographer, musician, and performance artist; a keen observer who finds inspiration in homespun objects like old farm machinery, barns, silos, and American architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then uses them to create complex, high-end contemporary art.

"Transformation is a word that has been with me since day one," he says. "In my work, I hope to dissolve the boundaries between human and machine, purpose and absurdity, and the possibility of spiritual transcendence versus mechanistic determinism."

Larson is a native Minnesotan who once considered setting up a studio in New York, but felt drawn back to his Midwestern roots, which then also became a source of inspiration. Some of his most famous work is influenced by Minnesota's climate, including Deep North, a replica of a house that was then shot through with deep snow. It's a piece one critic called "one of the most profoundly Minnesotan pieces of art I have ever seen."

"It seems to me a piece like Deep North couldn't be made without the weather of Minnesota," says art department chair Alexis Kuhr. "His inspiration comes out of Minnesota experience. He believes you can be an important artist in Minnesota as well as on a national scale."

As for the Walker mini-golf course last spring, Larson designed a curriculum called Site, Environment, Community, then took his students (who were selected from among 60 applicants) through the entire process from proposal to installation. The project, though, was not about mini-golf, says Larson.

"It was all about getting the students involved and getting them to go deeper, to not stay on the surface. It was an exhausting project that demanded much more of them than we originally thought. They worked so hard. They had to all take ownership, all had their names on it."

They started by throwing out words to inspire ideas. Phrases such as "golf clubs" or "putting green" weren't among them. The students' final products--The Ames Room, a distorted room that creates an optical illusion, and Mega Golf, a walk-in geodesic dome containing a full replica of the Walker's grounds--were seen by 50,000 visitors, a rare achievement for a group of 19- and 20-year-olds.

"I love teaching," says Larson. "I get the most energy from that, especially at a university where the fabric of the humanities is so important. The temperature of the students is different. They don't just draw well; they bring ideas from many disciplines to their work."

As for Heavy Rotation, you won't have to go to New York to see it--the Walker has acquired it.