If you grow up on an island of less than 3,000 people, you might wonder if that experience might narrow a person’s perspective. For artist Emily Larsen, who was born and raised on Shelter Island, it only helped her see further, deeper, broader.
Larsen, who studied Fine Art at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and who currently lives in Ridge with her family, is an observer of culture and the contradictions that enter our lives, both simple and painfully profound. What she sees all reflects back in her work, at once playful and haunting, and certainly thoroughly engrossing.
While the island is always drawing her back, her work has gone far and beyond its watery borders. Larsen’s most recent exhibit took her to Barcelona. Spain, with an exhibit at the Art Number 23 Gallery, and this October she’ll be featured in the Florence Biennial XIV in Italy.
Head to The Chequit on Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. for the opening cocktail reception and unveiling of their latest artist series, featuring Larsen’s haunting, provocative work, about 20 of which from her series “Beastly” and “For My Daughter: Hidden Landscapes.” We caught up with Larsen to talk about hometowns, inspiration and revelations.
Amy Zavatto: You seem like you enjoy mixing mediums – photos, painting, sketches, saturated or muted colors. Did you always find yourself working in this way, or has your toolbox grown as you’ve grown as an artist?
Emily Larsen: I’ve always been a creative person and continue to explore new ways of expressing my ideas. I don’t feel obligated to adhere to a specific look or palette and instead let the project dictate what would make it most successful. In For My Daughter: Hidden Landscapes I turned to infrared photography which allowed me to look at the world from a lateral perspective. Same space, but captures a different wavelength of light.
AZ: There’s a lot of texture in your work. How do you create this?
EL: Many of my backdrops are fabrics I design and print specifically for the project, or are paintings I have made to discuss the theme from a different perspective. The goal does tend to be a single photograph, but many pieces of art or design are created in that effort. All of which are integral to my process. Everything I work on is a way of ruminating on a single concept and projects develop off of each other for the same reason.
AZ: In particular, your new works seem to be taking a dreamscape, muted tone. Where are you coming from in these works? What was the inspiration?
EL: For My Daughter: Hidden Landscapes is a color study inspired by the impending birth of my daughter. For a long time I completely rejected the color pink as a symbol of our devaluing of women. Finding out I was having a daughter made me want to reconcile that problematic conditioning to be more accessible to whomever she was. To try and shed some of my feminine baggage to make room for her. Visualizing a world with less contradictory values and ideas of womanhood helped me literally learn to love some of the things I had always rejected.
AZ: There’s a lot of provocative imagery in your work — things that look alive yet also seem like they’re decomposing; things that look at once sweet and adorable, but also detached or maybe even a little violent. Where and what do you draw from to create this imagery?
EL: Much of my work is an attempt to process the absurdities built into our world and society and in doing so I can not escape the passive threat of violence, the contradictory value systems and our idolization for the natural world and our ceaseless ability to damage it. There is a rejection of the overly curated visual feeding trough that social media has warped us into expecting. I like to include little details that ground the viewer to reality like a piece of scotch tape, thumbtack or imperfect prop.
AZ: You talk about being interested in the space between the human experience and reality – can you talk a little bit more about what that is? The sort of cushion we create for ourselves to deal with difficult personal and world issues? Or is something else?
EL: Exactly. It’s our ability to flip-flop between knowing one thing, but doing/thinking and accepting the other for the sake of living our lives. To me a lot of my work is focused on creating a visual for that disconnection. A place where what we have to accept to continue forward meets and is challenged by the evidence of our world. For instance in “Beastly,” each image is comprised of a backdrop I made from a photo I took at the Museum of Natural History of [taxidermized] animals set against a still life that complemented it but did not create a convincing illusion. The result is multiple layers of fabrication and facsimile flattened into a moment of almost-believability.
AZ: Eastern Long Island has long been an inspirational and special place for artists. You were born and raised on Shelter Island? How did growing up here influence your decision to become an artist and, ultimately, your art?
EL: I think it definitely had an impact on how I came to focus on creative expression. The Island is known for its scarcity of mainstream entertainment so as a kid my main forms of fun were riding my bike, art and writing. We also didn’t have TV for about a decade so my sisters and I were really forced to make our own fun. I wouldn’t change a thing.
AZ: Your sister is also an artist – do you draw on each other for support? Inspiration?
EL: My sister Mary Theinert is an illustrator, my sister Liz Larsen is a writer and my brother Peder Larsen has been honing his skills at a number of crafts. We’ve watched each other grow and change and get better and better at the mediums that interest us, so we are all pretty invested emotionally in each other’s successes and failures. It’s just something we all do. We are just the kind of people who like to make things. It’s a cathartic and a sort of primal urge that we all understand in each other. It’s a wonderful support team!
AZ: Are there any artists on the East End who you respect or who influence you, either in the past or currently?
EL: Pollock, Vonnegut, Cindy Sherman, Elaine de Kooning, Chuck Close, Alan Shields, Hildy Maze, to name a few that come to mind.
Emily Larsen’s “Beastly” and “For My Daughter: Hidden Landscapes” will be on display at The Chequit from Saturday, June 17 through mid-July. The Chequit is located at 23 Grand Avenue, Shelter Island Heights, 631-749-0018.