The worn-out Electrolux was heading for the junkyard when Heidi Larson stopped her husband at the door. Before you dump it, look at that beauty, she suggested. Sleek and streamlined, the shabby vacuum cleaner retained the elegant understatement of an Art Deco classic right down to its gleaming metal fittings, ruby-backed logo and sinuous turquoise hose.
A realist painter known for his meticulous still lifes, Jeffrey T. Larson realized that her keen eye was right.
He plunked the Electrolux atop a chaste wooden cabinet in his northern Wisconsin studio and set to work immortalizing it over the next several months. Scaled to the size of the vacuum, the nearly 5-foot-wide painting is a marvel of tone and texture, the machine's pewter-colored canister set off by steely caps, loops of rubbery black cord and a curvaceous hose that dips and arcs around the tank. The elegance of the composition and Larson's deft evocation of shiny metal, soft fabric, matte paint and diffuse light ennoble the utilitarian appliance, lofting it out of the pantry and into the pantheon of artistic masterpieces. Among the national and international awards it garnered last year was first place in the 25th annual still-life competition run by the Artist's Magazine.
To art-historian types, the vacuum's sensuous pose and the painting's caressing light might recall the tradition of reclining female nudes that stretches from Velazquez through Goya to Tom Wesselmann. Among avant-gardists, "Electrolux" has a more droll appeal as a sly send-up of the brand new Hoover vacuums that post-Pop conceptual artist Jeff Koons famously enshrined in plexiglass boxes in 1986 as exemplars of newness and "sexual androgyny."
In keeping with his family-friendly aura, Larson grins mischievously when offered such interpretations. Yes, Velazquez is one of his favorite artists -- along with Vermeer, Anders Zorn, John Sargent and myriad other painters. And he knows all about Koons' infamous vacuums, a set of which sold last year for $11.8 million, but "that couldn't be further from my mind," he said.
"I'll study someone's work, but I'm really studying the abstract elements and how they got their effects. I'm competing in my own way with other artists, but the longer I paint, the more I'm just reacting to what I'm trying to paint."
Painting hour by hour
In the past two years Larson, 47, has painted a plethora of realistic still lifes (flowers, fruit, smoked fish, rustic studio props), and impressionistic family portraits and landscapes. More than 80 of them are on view in a "pop-up" gallery he's set up in the Galleria mall in Edina. Trained in the classical-realist painting style at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis, the Wayzata native shows regularly on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, but is not represented by a Twin Cities gallery. So every couple of years he arranges his own presentation at Galleria. The current show runs through Nov. 22.
After 25 years at the easel, Larson's hand and eye are so fluid that his paintings can appear to be the work of several artists. In spring and summer he spends every fair weather day outside, recording the lush garden and woodlands around the former schoolhouse near Maple, Wis., that he shares with his wife and their three home-schooled teenagers. In these paintings his style is looser and more impressionistic, responsive to each day's fleeting light and shadow. Often his figures are backlit, the sun glowing through their hair and only indirectly lighting their faces and torsos as they pin laundry to a clothesline, ramble through a meadow or read in a bower of lupine and poppies. The difficulty of rendering such images is belied by the bucolic languor of the scenes and the rustic simplicity of their settings.
He rarely if ever takes photos, preferring instead to work in natural light. At any moment he'll have several canvases in progress for different times of day. An obsessive worker, he turns out between 60 and 75 paintings most years.
"My typical day starts at the laundry line from about 6:30 to 8:30," he said. "Then I move to the garden from 8:45 to 11 a.m. and then the river until 3 p.m. You don't have time to stop; you edit in your mind and then the light changes."
Most often the figures he depicts are his wife or the kids who, he joked, "were trained from birth to sit still."
Come cold weather he moves into the studio and turns to still lifes, which he renders in tighter, more realistic detail. Here he gives vent to a more modern, even minimalist instinct, depicting such unlikely subjects as cellophane packages of saltine crackers, rutabagas on a cardboard box, balls of white tape on a creamy shelf, or smoked fish on a paper plate. Working in narrow tonal ranges of white, taupe and gray is more challenging and subtle because such colors are illusionary magic he fashions for the eyeball. The "white" styrofoam depicted in one canvas is a symphony of delicate lilac, blue, yellow and pink that the eye reads as white. Up close, the golden smoked fish is outlined in purple, its belly flecked with green, orange, yellow, violet.
Fortunately, over the years he's developed a market for both styles. Several of his minimalist still lifes of rutabagas -- glowing orchid-gold globes perched on trompe l'oeil cardboard -- were so popular that they sold out in a recent show on the East Coast. But the looser, more impressionistic landscapes and garden scenes prove equally popular.
"The still lifes stand out to people because they like the finish, but when it comes time to buy, that's not necessarily what they get," he said.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431