New Jersey Monthly May 1998
Painting A Lost World
by Joel Lewis
Besides the state's highways and along it's waterfronts are forgotten places filled with factories, smokestacks and industrial debris. These are the landscapes that Valeri Larko captures on canvas.
From Top Left, Transformers, Morristown, 1997; Power Plant, South Kearny, NJ, 1997, Industrial Debris, 1995, Valeri Larko stands next to the Morristown transformers she portrayed in oil paint. Photograph: Peter Chollick
In the early seventies, the late Robert Smithson, a sculptor raised in Clifton who was famous for his gigantic "earthworks," described New Jersey's ambience as "a kind of destroyed California, a derelict California." He would leave his New York home for day trips to places in Passaic County like the Great Notch quarry, intrigued by the manmade, industrial landscape. Valeri Larko is also fascinated by what might be called this state's "industrial sublime." She's a painter, and like Smithson, she travels to industrial hot spots like South Kearny, Port Newark, and Bayonne's Constable Hook looking for landscapes to paint. She sees beauty in the rusted and decaying parts of New Jersey that a less imaginative observer might dismiss as unfit subjects for art. "The reason I choose painting manmade objects is that I'm curious about how man has changed the environment," says Larko from her home and studio in Summit. "I was curious about the mystery of these places and how they affect our lives without us knowing it." Perhaps by instinct, Larko has turned her attention to parts of New Jersey that most people forget-places where machinery and other debris have been dumped or left. Yet her paintings are about more than rust. She captures the past and reminds us how far we've come. And she comments on our present, causing us to reexamine the things we discard. Larko's work has often been compared to the paintings of Charles Sheeler, best known for his thirties renderings of Ford Motors' River Rouge complex. But her use of bold colors and a penchant for odd juxtaposition and anthropomorphization lend a quality of surreal humor that invites the viewer to derive meaning from her work. "..[T]he bleakness of concrete and sheet metal disappears," wrote curator Zoltan Buki in his notes for Larko's 1996 exhibit at the New Jersey State Museum. "Larko's handling of artist's materials transforms this cubist chaos into an acceptable echo of the natural world."
Larko's interest in industrial parks and postindustrial heaps belies a childhood in suburban Parsippany. She attended high school with vague dreams of becoming a writer, but an art class sparked her present career. She eventually received a certificate from Plainfield's duCret School of Arts, and later took courses at Manhattan's Arts Students League. When she moved to Jersey City, Larko began painting the area's industrial scenes. "I was just reacting to the landscape around me," she notes. One of her first such works was that of the jagged industrial tableau of the lower Hackensack meadows as seen from the western Palisades slopes of her neighborhood. By the time she moved to Summit a few years ago, industrial New Jersey had become her regular subject. What distinguishes her from Sheeler and other industrial landscape artists is that she paints on location. Larko spends hours driving around in search of the perfect site. When she finds a location that "says something" to her, she parks her station wagon, takes out a cooler, and sets up her canvas and oil paints. For a large canvas, Larko may spend two months painting a single site. "Just being out there, seeing the light and sky change, interacting with people, and finding out the history of these sites makes the whole process much more interesting to me," she says. Critics have often commented on the desolation of her work; the only items from the natural world that appear are rough patches of weeds or the odd seagull or displaced pigeon. It's true that Larko does most of her work in places where few people would venture. But she grins at the notion that she should be afraid. "I have a basically fearless disposition," laughs the 38-year-old. "I dress down and don't give it another thought. I think if I did, I'd freak myself out about it." She often draws puzzled stares as she sets up her easel-sometimes from workers who still labor in nearby factories. But over time she makes friends with her audience, and has even sold a couple of paintings to the owners of buildings she has portrayed.
Once, though, a worker came over to her car and asked how much she charged for sex. "I guess the only women he ever saw there were prostitutes," she says. "He was a little confused and disappointed when I told him I was a painter." The large canvas that dominates her crowded studio, Power Plant, South Kearny, NJ embodies the essence of Larko's unique vision. Anyone who rides the train or PATH east from Newark will recognize this scene, with its imposing power plant in the foreground; the Pulaski Skyway-a web of concrete in steellooms in the background, while the state's most infamous highway, the Turnpike, runs beneath. Larko's view is colored by her familiarity with this site and her strong artistic sense of place. "I take things that are ugly and that we want to overlook, and I look for the beauty in them-however dubious," she says. "Look, I drive a car. I need to buy gas. So we need refineries. They have to be located someplace." Larko's piquant renderings of industrial decay have found favor among art collectors. In 1997, she sold fourteen paintings. She has had numerous solo gallery shows and, recently, her first sale to a museum-the Montclair Art Museum. She feels fortunate to support herself through only art-related work that includes teaching at the New Jersey Center for Visual Arts in Summit and directing the Tomasulo Gallery at Union County College. Yet she chooses to live in the suburbs not the most sought-after locale for an artist. "I think I live in a great place! The rent is cheap, I have my dogs, I have a parking place-what's to complain about?" Larko laughs. "I consider myself pretty lucky. I've tried to get into a New York gallery, but nothing has come of it so far. However, I'm not worried about it-I think I'm still young for an artist." Hoboken resident Joel Lewis has written for the Star-Ledger, Utne Reader, and Yahoo! Internet Life.