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Surface Tensions

Home Is Where The Unease Is in The Paintings of Lori Larusso

"we're not kids anymore"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 8/27/2008

Something is quietly foul in the bright paintings of Lori Larusso currently on view in the gallery space Jordan Faye Block curates inside the Case[werks] showroom at the Railway Express building, and it's not always the obvious. Take "Imminent Danger," one of the nine paintings included in Leisurely Concern. In it a polar bear-white cake sits precariously close to the edge of a white countertop, the gray dustbin and sky-blue floor below it perhaps about to be splattered in icing when it falls. Nothing else really conveys danger in the composition--not the plain brown cupboards nor the plain white plates stacked on the countertop. The only things that might give pause are the four American flags that serve as the cake's centerpiece decoration. It's enough to make you wonder what the danger is here--the inevitable pull of gravity that might send the cake toward the floor or the patriotic impulse that put those flags there in the first place.

That wrinkle is the lone variable that might push Larusso's works into the compellingly specious. Otherwise, they hover in that curious realm of suburban pop, where Wayne Thiebaud intersects with Patrick Caulfield. It's a realm defined by Larusso's palette and subject matter, and for the most part her targets are soft, but what she chooses to show and hide is what pushes her paintings into more interesting territory, precisely because it's unclear where she might be headed.

These nine paintings together spotlight Larusso's interest in domestic representation, the sort of 1950s lies perpetrated by Ladies' Home Journal versions of the American domesticity dream. Larusso's spaces are homes, the places where people live, and the marks of human life dot her imagery even though people themselves are rarely represented. Their invasion is evident in "Imminent Danger"--just as somebody put those four flags there, somebody also cut the wedge of cake missing from it. The whiff of the human informs the simplicity of "Emergency Sandwich," a brown paper lunch bag presumably containing the titular treat sitting in front of a florid representation of a wallpaper treatment. And humans definitely had something to do with the almost geometric arrangement of furniture in "Space," a pastel-like rendering of what could be a furniture showroom, although the black dog sitting in the foreground suggests that it's somebody's living room.

"Space" is also a good example of Larusso's organizing ideas here. She likes to partner different temperatures of bright colors right next to each other, and here a deep amethyst floor becomes a softer lavender wall, with deeper purple areas signifying the shadows cast by objects on the ground. It's a color decision that lends her canvases a sense of flatness, although she achieves an almost isometric depth of field. That she opts for such bright colors gives this sneaky flatness a radiant glow, and the painting's colors push and pull at the eyes.

The everyday items that populate her canvases are similarly elusive. Larusso favors mundane objects--cakes, automobiles, tract housing, tables, chairs, a paper bag--that she renders in as little visual information as possible. They're often achieved by mere shape and shading. The dog in "Space," what the brain wants to identify as a poodle, looks almost like a cutout piece of construction paper. You make it a dog--and a poodle, at that--by the context of its setting. There's no detail to the curl of the fur. There's no character in the face (there are no eyes in the face). There's nothing, really, that makes the shape a dog except for the context where you encounter it. It another context, it could very easily be the outline of some kind of land mass.

The commentary that Larusso may be aiming for is suggested by "In-Between." Here, Larusso paints another elusively flat living room--where an off-white floor runs into a cream-colored wall--on a flat horizontal panel, giving it the feel of a wide-screen movie. On the left are the crossed legs of, presumably, a man, so defined by the pants and laced-up shoes (the male uniform of this Ladies' Home Journal milieu). On the right is just a hint of a woman, the lower right leg jutting out of a skosh of skirt and ending in a black flat. What's left in the painting is the horrible nothing floating in between them, a predominantly white expanse on which you can project whatever you want: tension, animosity, cold indifference, quiet apathy, or nothing at all.

It's a calm malevolence that seeps through Larusso's other works here, the suggestion that the all is not right in the placid world of the great American suburb that has been coursing through art and fiction since Levittowns started sprouting up outside cities in the 1950s. Even the modest environmental slant Larusso adds to that idea here--as witnessed in "Construct," "Exposure Therapy," and "Exterior Threat"--feels familiar, and almost rote.

Only "We're Not Kids Anymore" expresses something more troubling and vertiginous here. Another one of Larusso's superficially serene scenes--an exterior rendering of a backyard, with a swing set, sandbox, and piece of lawn furniture--it becomes more and more disquieting the longer you look at it. The grass is enthusiastically green, the background sky almost intoxicatingly blue, but something isn't right. The swing set has nothing attached to it--it's just a skeletal frame--and the sandbox looks more like a hardened pile than a playful retreat. In fact, the more you look, the more the painting feels less like a comment on suburban representation and more of a peek at what it is now, a mini ghost town of its former dream self. It's a painting that suggests a lived-in anxiety, that suspicion that the suburban life so many people grew up with is no longer an option, patently unsure just what the world is going to be like when and if they start having families of their own.

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