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Sculpture, Painting, & Place: An Interview With Molly Larkey

Sculpture, Painting, Place: An Interview With Molly Larkey

“I traditionally work in sculpture,” Molly Larkey explains, ironically surrounded by a group of new paintings she’s been working on. She gestures to them. “A lot of this happened when I moved to LA. In New York, I was building this career as a sculptor. Here, I started working more in two dimensions. I’m basically at a point where that’s how it is. Sometimes you want to be branded as one or the other but this is what I do: some people know me more as a painter, some people know me more as a sculptor.”

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Her paintings are form-influenced shapes of color. There are embossments attached to them, little ceramic characters that work with and against her curving painted landscapes. Although two dimensional and fixed to a wall, they have a performative, gestural quality: they move and jump at you from the wall without moving. The paintings are representative of an artist who is responding to surrounding stimulus.

“So many things happened when I moved to LA,” she says, exiting her painting space. She walks down a long white hallway with high ceilings and many offshoots into smaller studios. “I was so inspired by the alternative gallery scene and the art scene in Los Angeles that I started hosting shows in my house. For a variety of reasons—basically because I got so overwhelmed—I decided I needed to take a break for a while.”

She points to a few vacant wall spaces with tape outlines on them. “I’m just starting to host shows like that again, here at my studio,” she says. She walks into a room full of industrial equipment and large, intimidating metal rods. She takes a look around and smiles. “This is my other space. It’s pretty nice right?”

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She shows off how easily she can bend metal with a mechanism that resembles a ship’s wheel. She proudly points out her welding gear and a few sculptures that are in the process of being finished. A few giant, weathered white objects sit on a shelf and very easily can be confused for stone pieces that have broken off of the Roman Colosseum.

“These are actually styrofoam,” she says, grabbing one and placing it onto a sculpture. There is an instantaneous connection between her painting and sculpture when she adds this foreign body to her steel skeleton. “I feel like there is a way that the paintings are informing the sculpture. I was adding ceramic chunks to the paintings and I wanted to do that to the sculptures: these are the chunks that I’m experimenting with. I’m trying to figure out what the surface will be.”

She restores the styrofoam to its shelf. “All these chunks came from Mike Kelley‘s studio. I have a friend who works there and, when they needed to consolidate, they had to get rid of a lot of stuff. They had all this foam, which I gathered from them. It’s kind of intense.”

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“I’ve think about that a lot,” she adds, the presence of the late artist entering the space. “I feel like there’s something good about keeping these things moving, progressing. Maybe that’s why I haven’t incorporated them into any pieces yet?”

Molly walks down the hall, returning to her painting studio. She sits down in a worn, plush mustard arm chair at the center of the room. Her paintings frame her, waiting aside like obedient children. “I was born in LA, in Laurel Canyon, in 1971,” she says. “My parents were New York Jews and musicians who were part of this exodus that I feel happened at that time. There was a movement where music went from East coast to West coast and there was a lot of activity surrounding it. I lived in Los Angeles until I was about four years old, when my parents divorced. My mom and my siblings then moved to rural Idaho. Since a lot of people were trying to get back to nature, the move was appropriate for the time.”

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She describes the Idaho lifestyle as commune-like and rural. There were few other kids around. “I was very, very bookish,” she says. “I was like that anyway but that’s what I did: I read to entertain myself. We didn’t have electricity at that point either which meant no television. I was even home schooled too! It was a really, really natural lifestyle.”

Molly went back and forth between Idaho and Los Angeles, mostly spending her time in the countryside. When it was time for her to think about college, she was more than ready to leave. “All through high school I knew I was going to New York City: that was my spiritual homeland, where my parents were from. I went to Columbia to study literature. I wanted to become a journalist or write fiction, which very much was my artistic bent. My junior year I went abroad to Barcelona and met and lived with artists who inspired a revelation: language felt burdened and overworked to me and too disparate from what it was trying to talk about. I started doing sculpture because I felt that it was more immediate. The materials were speaking for themselves. They weren’t referential: they were direct.”

“And that was it!” she says. “I was an artist.”

She stops a beat to point something out between her history and her paintings. “I mention writing because I feel that it is still present in my work. I do these paintings with ceramic cutouts that are in a way approximations of symbolic language. Some people will see shapes or punctuation marks. They are silhouettes of language or objects, while still being these things unto themselves. That tension that was there from the moment I started to make art is something that has remained a constant. It’s still really important to me.”

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The second phase of Molly’s life was spent in New York: this was the part of her life where she emerged as a successful artist. She went to grad school, showed her work quite often, and made a name for herself in New York. Her life there didn’t feel complete, though. “I always had a fantasy of coming back to Los Angeles. I didn’t know anyone [in LA] and I didn’t know how to come back. I’d visit here since I always had some family around. I even interned at LA Weekly one year during college!”

“Basically, after eighteen years of arriving in New York for college, I became kind of depressed and had had some relationships that hadn’t worked out and it was just me and my dog. I had a really nice place to live but it kind of felt like that was it: just me and the dog and my studio. That’s all.”

“I came out to LA for Thanksgiving in 2008,” she says. “I realized my mom and my siblings—my two sisters and brother—had moved back here too. They had all left and come back.”

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“We all spent Thanksgiving together and one of my sisters had a spare room since one of her kids had gone away to college. I flew back to New York and I told friends I was thinking of going to LA and that I was maybe going to apply for residencies.They knew I wouldn’t be coming back.”

“But I insisted that I was!” she adds, laughing. “New York has a gravitational pull, which makes it really hard to think you can live anywhere else. New York has all this stuff that you never end up doing but is there for you to do: you become part of the New York mythology. ‘How could you live anywhere else? Everything is in New York!’: I kind of tricked myself out of that by saying I was going to live with my sister just for a few months to check out LA.”

The connection back to Los Angeles was immediate, almost like a long awaited homecoming. From the moment she returned, for good, everything felt right for her. “I left on January 2nd and it was freezing in New York. I got here…and it was eighty degrees!”

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“In New York, I had come to really respect and long for what I knew of the LA art scene. The Thing show at the Hammer and the artists coming out of here were some of my favorites. It sounded so awesome to live in a place where you have more space to work and where there were so many artist-run alternative spaces that fostered the kind of community that I craved.”

While good, the move wasn’t easy: she had to relearn the city and find her community. Thanks to technology, this wasn’t nearly the challenge she anticipated it to be. “I pretty much knew one person who was an artist here along with my sister in Studio City,” she says. “I managed to get a Lincoln Heights studio and I started to go to events, doing things that were in my world. That made my move so easy.”

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“This was partly because I was super friendly, partly because of Facebook, and partly because of GPS. I would just show up to stuff and everyone was nice, which was an experience I had not felt in New York. It’s territorial there! Here, I landed and, boom, every time I went out I met people and connected. I did a lot of studio visits and it was great.”

There is a freedom in Los Angeles that Molly had been missing. A lot of the baggage of being an artist disappeared and she started to experiment. The paintings that surround her are a product of her moving to Los Angeles, too. “The main thing is that I started to make paintings. I had made these really colorful, rainbow colored, complicated mixed media sculptures in New York and I had done some flat works on paper that were painted. I think I had gotten hung up on my not going to art school—but I did go to grad school—and having never taken a painting class. I felt the weight of history. Sculpture is something that slides into other mediums—but painters are painters. The whole history of painting made me scared. I was afraid of people telling me what I couldn’t do.”

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“When I got to LA, I just felt so much more open. New York feels so professional that it weighs on you whenever you bring something into the world. You feel like it will define your career. I didn’t feel like there was any room for experimentation! I felt freer when I came here and I was able to let go of any paranoia or baggage that was preventing me from painting. In that basic way, the experimental nature and the way people do things here, made me feel like I was able to experiment in painting without being judged and without judging myself because I had never taken a painting class.”

“In general, I like to experiment,” she says. “I’m an improvisational artist: I have a general idea of what I’m going to do—and then it goes where it goes. This place has helped me to have a healthier creative process. I used to work on sculptures for years in New York and that changed here. Everything got simpler. I was working on all these different concepts—like color and texture and line and symbolism—in one sculpture. I’m proud of those but they were too much. When I moved here, my concerns operated in their own spheres, making the sculptures simpler and the paintings simpler.”

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Molly takes a look around her studio, taking a beat to reflect on her past and present. She takes a beat: what does the future look like? “What I’ve found in the four years that I’ve been here is that there is a balance I have to strike between focusing on my own work and focusing on the artistic community and the queer community and the overlap of them. Community is important to me, and it will always be something that I will be related to.”

“There are so many amazing artists in Los Angeles,” she mentions, alluding to her need to showcase the work of other artists in her space. “It’s such a great place to be an artist, which you can see because people go to school here and then they stay here. Being able to bring some visibility to these artists is important to me. I always want to be a part of a community and continue to move forward with my work. That’s the main thing.”

“I don’t see myself leaving here either,” she says. She leans in, continuing with a kind concern: “People are picking up on how awesome Los Angeles is, too.”

For more on Molly, be sure to check out her website here. You can also catch the closing of Laurie Nye and Jennifer Rochlin’s The Cyrstal Eaters at Max Mart Studios, where her studio is, on August 11 from 2PM to 5PM for the show’s closing reception. Get more information on it here.

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