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Robert Larson
Robert Larson

Interview by Tim Thayer with Santa Cruz, California based found object collage artist Robert Larson. The interview took place at the home of Tim and Tara Thayer on December 9, 2007.

TT: Hi Rob. How are you doing?

RL: Doing good. Thanks, Tim.

TT: Is your work "pro-smoking?" Or even "anti-smoking?"

RL: It's neither. It's definitely not anti-smoking, it's not pro-smoking. I find smoking to be an interesting subject that touches on a lot of aspects of human life, society, identity - there are so many layers to it that I find are very compelling.

TT: There's no judgment to [your work]?...that's why I ask that question first, because it is such a loaded topic. You refer to your materials as discarded…

RL: Found materials. But the fact that smoking is bad for you, that it can kill you and that the idea behind the history of smoking where there was definitely a misrepresentation as to the dangers of smoking tobacco. Those ideas add to the meaning of the work. To me the discarded Marlboro pack represents the brand "Marlboro;" the activity of smoking; and the plant tobacco - and all of those elements have a lot of rich ideas that are part of American culture and not only the people that created this country but those who where on the land before it was the United States of America.

TT: Some areas you have been collecting the material…because I know you have talked to me about "Marlboro Country" in the past as the idealized Western landscape, and it is very attractive, those images are very powerful, but the locations where you are finding the material [discarded cigarette packages] is almost the exact opposite…

RL: Yes, I think that contrast is really powerful. The images that Marlboro in particular have adopted are quintessential American images and identifies with the cowboy, the Marlboro Man, and also the representation of Marlboro Country which is majestic American, Western landscape. It's idealized and it's real…those are real places that exist but its appropriation and attachment to this product is kind of a fictitious connection that is being made. The work that I'm doing is exploring urban landscapes in America - mostly this has been on the West Coast of the United States - and these discarded packages that I'm finding are part of the landscape. Once they have been discarded they belong to the landscape more than anyone or anything else. The landscape, the urban landscape is a creation of people - us. I guess you could go back as far and say the landscape belongs to us.

TT: This is a creation with both accident and planning. Obviously, the discarded part is very random and nature sort of takes over and blows things around…

RL: That's an interesting dynamic at play in the work - which again is about contrast. The origins of the packages are machine made, mass produced, everything is very regular, homogenous - basically identical. But these packages, once they've been consumed, discarded, they enter a realm where chance and things beyond intention and control play out and float, I guess you could say, on a disposable wilderness. And the weather and elements distress and decay over time - and to the process. They turn into individual objects with unique qualities as the weathering records that journey.

TT: When you first started looking for found object material: scraps of wood, rusted pieces of metal, and then you first started noticing the Marlboro packs - how long did that process take?

RL: I started exploring urban landscapes in the industrial areas, along railroad tracks - the fringes of urban environments…and for a good three years, at least, I was working with rusted metal and distressed wood - more three dimensional type assemblages. I guess material that would associated with traditional assemblage art. Then in 1991 I just happened to take notice of a discarded Marlboro pack and I was struck by its resemblance to Warhol's Campbell Soup can. That interested me; on the one hand you have "Campbell's soup is good food"/ healthy. On the other, Marlboro, which is associated with independence, danger, toxicity, cancer - but again it's a quintessential American icon. So that contrast was interesting. And it seems that the Marlboros, the content of them really resonated with the type of environment I was finding them in.

TT: I assume it is kind of a lonely pursuit when you are out there, and maybe lonely is the wrong word…I guess that is the question - is there a negative aspect to being out there [searching for material], is it not the healthiest thing for you? Maybe it has changed over the years; maybe you have turned it into a positive thing?

RL: Well, it's always been a positive experience. Confronting things with a negative ideas and association can be a positive in itself - a war correspondent or photo journalist documenting tragedies, injustices - the act of it is important to communicate, convey things that are taking place in the world. I think there is a sense of purpose and satisfaction. I started doing it when I was, let's see, 20 years old. I started walking through parts of cities most people avoid - whether they are ghettos, lower income, abandoned - industrial areas.

TT: That's where the material was, so that's where you were, but was there also a fascination with the people in those environments?

RL: Well, to be honest with you the environments that I collect the materials in are just as important as the material I collect - the experience of being out there, the experience of walking and observing is a process that informs the work. It is something that I get ideas and nourishment from. I was out there for that experience, and I don't know if the materials were just an excuse to be out there - and if creating the artwork back at the studio is a way to justify my time out there…

TT: That's a good question…since each is so different, studio work versus collecting. How do you feel about the balance? Do you enjoy the walks more? Or the studio work? Do you hate the studio work?

RL: At different times I like different aspects of those activities. The walking and collecting is a very open, free time where you are not producing or putting out but rather receiving. It is a time of collecting, not only physically but mentally. The walking [and collecting] is a very unique activity, a solitary time. Spending time with yourself and thoughts. But it's not static, you are not sitting. You are moving, but at a very ancient pace. A pace that is conducive to thinking and you are responding to what you receive and at the same time you are having internal dialogs. So it is introspective on one level, but you are out and about and engaged with the world outside of yourself. I guess I'd say my work, in some regards, is an introspective look at our collective self as a society. I happen to be observing the urban landscape as a cultural manifestation and looking at the discarded materials or artifacts that can be found in this landscape - looking at things we share in common.

TT: I'll take this chance to break off and ask how does your other work or materials differ from the Marlboro work? I can see parallels with the match books, but there are also the gum wrappers.

RL: The Marlboro is stated and loaded with content and so work made out of Marlboro material is naturally going to address those other ideas. But something about my work with all of the materials that I use is that I'm interested in the transformation that the material is undertaking. So it begins in the environment and me witnessing that in the landscape and then I bring it back and I isolate parts of the material and use it as pigment and that transformative process continues as I integrate it into new situations - often visual artworks that hang on the wall, collages you could call them. So, on one level all the materials become a palette of color and texture.

TT: When you are working with something more benign, gum wrappers say, does it free you up in that it is not a social message, or rather a less loaded message? Let me back up and ask this question - what is the balance between the message of the work and how the work looks - the composition?

RL: Regardless of the material and the content behind it I do engage with it in a very visual way. At that point [that I'm working on the "artwork"] I'm trying to communicate something visual and it is moving towards minimalism and abstraction which I think is a place that is more open to interpretation - trying to take it to a place to look at it in a new perspective to acknowledge it's complexity. All of the materials are truly complex like our day and age. I enjoy the materials that don't have smoking related content, on the one hand, that can be a distraction as well as a very important element to examine…

TT: A distraction to you, or the viewer?

RL: I guess both. Viewers and myself. I can't separate us really. Viewers interpret the work, understand it - there are so many different ways to look at it. But there is something, definitely freeing about the other materials that aren't smoking related. But they have their own baggage because you still have the idea of the discarded consumable society behind it.

TT: It's been a good week for me to learn about your work because I got to read the catalog entry for the Rydell Fellowship. A lot of the ideas I already knew but it reinforced them. Also talking with you this week and the artist talk you did at the gallery. But one thing I also thought the work was about was the idea of multiples, but I haven't heard you talk about this.

RL: Well, as a culture we live in a time of multiples and mass production. As a culture we are sharing the material world. There is the homogenous aspect, that can be reassuring, but also cost effective and efficient…

TT: But what about within your work? Before you were making pieces from found objects that were made of many different parts. It seems like a big shift to go from that to the use of hundreds (or even thousands) of the "same" object….although I know they are different in that they have been weathered and such…

RL: Well, I think that is the key, what you just acknowledged there, that they started off as identical and then to see them change to unique items. That really is a beautiful thing. Especially in relation to what has created that shift to idiosyncrasy - and that's nature and chance and things beyond our control. I think that is reflected in the work, in the variety of contrasts do to this process. I'm also adding to it and engaging in that process as well.

TT: Thinking of the people that come see the work - your titles don't give a big clue to the meaning behind the work. Would you insist on an artist statement being put out…?

RL: I'm hoping the material list will give the clues to what the work is about. Saying it is "discarded" matchbooks, "discarded" cigarette packages, hopefully gives some context to the process - the collecting of the material.

TT: If a viewer approaches a work, do you have any particular way you want them to see it, or are you happy to let them interpret it any way you want? I know that your stance on the work is very specific…

RL: That's such a good question because I don't know if it is the politically correct answer or intellectually correct answer to say "Oh, I'm happy to have people interpret it anyway they want" … but I'm always happy to have people see it's nuanced complexity rather than latch on to one specific aspect of it's inherent content. I want people to respond to the transformative aspect of the work. To the material, and then my use and manipulation of that material to realize "wow, this is working as a formal abstract work of art." And not just for itself, not so that it can be a beautiful or interesting object but just so that is the way in to engage with the piece of artwork and the material and the ideas behind it. It's the process behind the work that gives meaning to the work. I wouldn't be satisfied with just making minimalist works of art at this point in my life. I need that content of the materials I'm working with. Maybe that tension of confronting the many layers contained in the work as well as potentially transcending it in the visual artwork, because if you see it from a distance for the first time or even subsequent times you can respond to it, interact with it in a very visual way without confronting those ideas(of consumerism, discarded material, etc.) But you can look back and understand what it represents - painting with the evidence of activities within our culture. So I feel like it is part of the tradition of working with and confronting the "everyday" and having that be art.

TT: That's pretty good…anything you'd like to add?

RL: I'd have to listen to what we already said.

TT: Well, thank you.

RL: Thank you too.


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