Mary Ceruti gazed at the corner of a white-walled gallery at Walker Art Center, where a small ball-and-chain hung from the peak of a steel pole. Nearby, a control panel with a big button stood ready to send the ball smashing into the wall.
Would the Walker's executive director press that button?
"Oh, I'd bash the wall," said Ceruti. "It's very much a Rorschach test — it's as much about how somebody interacts with it as what it actually does."
A sculptor known for the ways she invents new forms, Larner is hard to pin down — and that's the point.
"I think a lot of the work is sort of about these tensions between structure and surface, positive and negative space, fragility and strength," said Ceruti, who curated the exhibition.
She pointed to "Wrapped Corner" — 33 steel chains stretched horizontally around a corner, tight enough to avoid sagging but not so tight that they wreck the wall. "Something like this, it's really aggressive and strong, but if it goes further it's going to destroy itself," said Ceruti.
The largest survey of Larner's work since 2001, this is the show's second and final stop after its debut earlier this year at the Sculpture Center in New York, which Ceruti led before joining the Walker three years ago.
Walker regulars may know Larner from her shiny stainless steel "X" that stands at the center's Vineland Place entrance.
The most surprising part of the exhibit, which includes work from 1987 to 2020, is that each piece is entirely unique, as if it embodies its very own universe. Some give the appearance of being strong and sturdy, like steel chains or bronze. Others feel ephemeral, like bacterial cultures or 18 miles of surgical gauze that has been wound into a giant ball.
Walking through the show, you feel tensions that create a subtle physical sensation.
Spatial optical illusion. The tension between not gripping something too tight but not so loose that it could slip away. The way a woven object can create a sense of pathos, drawing one closer to it.
Larner's work is tactile and sensory, meaning one doesn't need to rush over to the wall labels to understand it. Yet it also speaks to reawakening physical sensations that many are experiencing as COVID isolation times fade.
Materials interest Larner, who came up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and '90s, when the scene was heavily male-dominated. Originally trained in photography, she realized toward the end of her BFA studies at California Institute of the Arts that she wanted to make stuff.
"I wanted to position myself not to photograph objects and things, but to make objects and things that you need to move around and grasp," said Larner. "Instead of looking into the frame."
"Reticule" (1999), a large work made of cast polyurethane, looks like a giant red-and-green distorted Slinky, or a stacked mess of rubber bands, or giant strands of solidified licorice lace candy.
An even bigger piece nearby, "2 as 3 and Some, Too" (1997-98), looks like the outlines of two wobbly blue, yellow and pink cubes stacked awkwardly on top of each other. But as one walks closer, it appears perfectly in balance.
Two cube-like works — "Boney Ridge," 2016, which looks like a battered loaf of bread, and "Cave," 2016, which could pass for a giant hunk of dark chocolate — at first appear like benches.
The title of "RWBs," which was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, is short for "red, white and blues." Larner calls it "a wild mass of patriotism" — a pile of colored aluminum tubing and cables referencing the industrial materials imported by Iraq that U.S. officials used as a pretext for invasion.
Even with this piece, though, it is all about experiencing the messy pile of "patriotism," offering a physical sensation to counterbalance an abstract theorization.
"Some people are more visual," said Larner. "The thing about sculpture is it's about the way that it's received. It's the most physical of any art form, in terms of all your senses being used."
Don't Put It Back Like It Was
When: April 30-Sept. 4. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu., 11-6 Fri.-Sat., 11-5 Sun.
Opening-day talk: 3 p.m. Sat. with Liz Larner and Mary Ceruti.
Where: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
Admission: $2-$15, free for 18 and younger, and for all Thursday evenings.
Info: walkerart.org or 612-375-7600.