American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2011
American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2011, Volume 28, Number 1.
“Valeri Larko: Two Decades,” at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey (May 2–August 8, 2010), surveyed the career of an artist who finds formal beauty in sites often ignored or dismissed as examples of urban-suburban blight. Larko finds her landscapes in what she terms the “gritty contradiction” of the derelict industrialized in-between spaces of New York and New Jersey. Nature is not excluded from this scenography, and Larko remains alert to vestiges of the heritage of America’s—and the Northeast’s, in particular—founding landscapists, the Hudson River School. At the same time, the art historical back story includes Charles Sheeler’s and Charles Demuth’s celebrations of American industry. Often, in Larko’s oils, the geometry of manmade structures shapes the fluid passages of sky and water, as in two panoramic vistas of Newtown Creek from 2009. In Kosciusko Bridge, Newtown Creek, the metal span and its reflection break up the 25-by-60-inch view into neatly framed vignettes of trees, low factory buildings and pebbly shore. In the 20-by-64-inch spaghetti-box-format Behind the Restaurant Depot, Newtown Creek, a broken-down pier juts into the distance at a steep angle, providing a perspective skeleton like a Renaissance diagram and organizing the shimmering dark blue water into intriguing shapes. An industrial tank, smooth and white, hovers on the far shore.
Larko likes the closed, almost-abstract forms of industrial tanks, drawn by the morphology of their shapes. In the introductory essay to the Morris Museum exhibition catalogue, Rocio Aranda-Alvarado compares Larko’s images to the documentary photographs of the German husband-and-wife team, of Hilla and Bernd Becher. While the Bechers’ neutral presentations seem encyclopedic, albeit tinged with industrial nostalgia, Larko is, first of all, a painter. Her machine-housing portraits vary in personality. In the abstract purity of Sphere Tanks, Bayonne (1991), the white globes offer a textbook exercise in the manipulation of curved shadow. In the corroded forms of Cooper Alloy (1993), rust patterns mimic the mottled sky. The rooftop ensemble of Shelton Newark (1990) sports a frayed sign for a corrugated paper company, stenciled against the sky. In some of her paintings, the mechanical object moves so insistently into the foreground that natural elements become a mere atmospheric backdrop. One of the most engaging of these machines is depicted front-and-center in Press Punch (1999), a rusty brown and scruffy green contraption with a distinctive, vaguely equine profile and a graceful tangle of wires and shadows. In Mufflers (2000), an overhead, horizonless view of a salvage-yard pile, nature appears as a clump of yellow wildflowers miraculously springing from a patch of dirt amid the writhing forms of old pipes and tanks. Clearly, Larko takes as much pleasure in the compositional possibilities of the undulating shapes and the colors of weathered metal as she does in the more obviously organic flowers. Mufflers is a dynamic composition, exploiting the biomorphic possibilities of the subject. Another similar painting, also from 2000, Computer Pile, doesn’t have the same energy, perhaps because the flat, square shapes and slick plastic surfaces seem incapable of nourishing the beauty of decay. One of the recurring themes of Larkos oeuvre is that beauty, like nature itself, finds a way.
Valeri Larko, Behind the Restaurant Depot, Newtown Creek, 2009
Courtesy The Morris Museum, Morristown, New Jersey
Other contemporary artists are exploring the visual consequences of modern society’s exploitation and transformation of the land, often implicitly lamenting the loss of pastoral civility but also finding formal inspiration in the juxtaposition of nature and industry. Rackstraw Downes is a recognized master of this genre: he can bring the epic grandeur of an Albert Bierstadt landscape to an unprepossessing stretch of commercial shanties tucked beneath a highway overpass.
(“Rackstraw Downes: Under the Westside Highway” was on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut, through January 2, 2011.) Larko is not as ambitious as Downes. There is a ragtag intimacy to her scenes. Sometimes, as in Gasteria, Bronx (2009), the abandoned and graffiti-covered structure she depicts remains stubbornly pedestrian. But Obsolete Oil Terminal, Bronx (2009) has aghostly melancholy formally enlivened by polychrome metal scaffolding that crisply rises into blue sky. Behind the Restaurant Depot, Newtown Creek And the monumental forms of Rusting Gantries (2008), knee-deep in feathery weeds, evokes thepleasure of ruins. Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, New Jersey 07960.Telephone (973) 971-3700. On the web at