Essay: American Gothic (Saturday Night/Sunday Morning)

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

American Gothic (Saturday Night/Sunday Morning): A new film and sculpture by Chris Larson

Chris Larson's pragmatic approach to life and to making art is infused with a brilliant imagination and artifacts from his rural Minnesota past-its machinery, architecture, and folk art.

Over the past decade, Larson has created giant wooden machines that, though still in "real" time and space, always worked in the mind of the viewer. Located at the transference point between the physical and spiritual (or between art and nonart), his contraptions also set the stage for our contemplation of the sacred and the profane.

Larson's commitment to the power of the object extends the energy of the modernists before him who found essential truths contained within a formal visual vocabulary. His wooden contraptions can seem strangely real. A recent piece Larson built at Franconia Sculpture Garden looked so much like harvesting equipment that nearby farmers inquired as to its purpose.

Larson's most recent work actually operates, as did the sculpture featured at Art in General in November 2000 and in his first film, The Gastral Colony, which screened at New York's RARE Gallery earlier this year. One might wonder about the departure from his giant still machines, but in talking about his new human-operated contraptions, Larson is sure to point out that desire is just as real as anything another way to manifest the spiritual through the physical. The Gastral Colony featured small, exquisitely crafted wooden buildings, such as a church, schoolhouse, town hall, and barn, all bulging as a result of human-operated machines that pumped mysterious fluids into them.

In the film, Larson himself powered an elaborate contraption that is hooked up to a distended white farmhouse. Through this dynamic interaction, he reveals the transformative link between humans and architecture, showing quite directly the energy passing between them. Larson gives birth to these forms, and the film then illustrates the reproductive power of creative activity. When asked if he would consider using anything other than wood to build his structures, he responded, "Would I ever date someone other than my wife?" Then he added, "It takes a long time to build a successful relationship."

In Larson's second film project, American Gothic (Saturday Night/Sunday Morning), he again works with director Jason Spafford and sound designer Alex Oana and utilizes his sculpture as a theatrical set. As executive producer, actor, set, costume, and prop designer, and builder, Larson uses the poetic theme of Americana and vaudeville to extend his inquiry into metamorphosis and what country music calls "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning." Larson plays three different mythic characters. The actions of the first two-a magician and a farmhand-result in the birth of the third, a fancy-suited country-amd -western guy with legs so long (he's one tall Texan) that he can't stand. It's a fancy but dark affair.

"Things don't always work out," says Larson. "But then again, things always work out."

Just like the country-and-western musician who plays drinking songs on Saturday night and sings gospels Sunday morning, Larson reconciles the dark with the light. The characters in the film are different incarnation of the viewer as much as they are of the artist himself.

If Larson offers any lesson in American Gothic (Saturday Night/Sunday Morning), it might be to acknowledge both sides of who you are and work with what you've got. It is by virtue of these ideas that Chris Larson is able to live a multifaceted life and reap the reward of "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning."

Cynde Randall is an artist and the Senior Program Associate for the MAEP.

American Gothic (Saturday Night/Sunday Morning) and Homo domesticus are presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), an artist-managed curatorial department of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. MAEP is made possible by generous support by the Jerome Foundation.

Citation: Cynde Randall, American Gothic (Saturday Night/Sunday Morning):A new film and sculpture by Chris Larson, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2001.