Art

Chris Larson on Gods, Monsters, and His Powerful New Sculpture Series

The artist's latest project, "Beyond the Rainbow," uses 3-D-printed gods to explore queer symbols throughout history.

Upon first glance, Chris Larson certainly looks the part of a contemporary artist—he exudes that hip, cultured New Yorker vibe. Likewise, his innate curiosity about the world becomes evident just minutes into a conversation with him.

In other ways, however, the 46-year-old Brooklynite is the antithesis of the artist archetype. By day, he’s an exec at a major reinsurance company, a position he landed after decades of climbing the corporate ladder in primary insurance and reinsurance fields and growing up in relative poverty. When it comes to his side hustle, he’s entirely self-taught; his first real introduction to the world of fine art came later in life, after he began collecting the works of masters like Picasso, a luxury he could afford only because of his high-paying career.

Max Rainoldi
Chris Larson.

That career also allows Larson to fund his own artistic projects—including this year’s “Beyond the Rainbow,” which consists of a trio of life-size, 3-D-printed sculptures modeled after real queer people and designed to interrogate universally accepted LGBTQ symbols and iconography. (Larson cites his attendance at a Gays Against Guns march in 2018 as the project’s inspiration.) But he’s not aiming to make a profit from his work; instead, he strives to educate and incite discussion, and he plans to ultimately donate it to advocacy groups with serious stipulations about how new owners can use or move the art. Larson has shown “Beyond the Rainbow” at venues like Brooklyn’s House of Yes and Manhattan’s Nonfinito Gallery, and since the sculptures were printed with biodegradable plastic and designed to withstand light-to-medium exposure to the elements, he also plans to bring them to Burning Man 2019 this August. (He belongs to a camp and goes every year.)

NewNowNext recently caught up with Larson to chat about creating “Beyond the Rainbow,” the significance of historic events like the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS crisis, and using art as a tool to enlighten and inspire.

As someone with no formal background in fine art, why did you choose to pursue it?

Oh, I know the moment I realized I wanted to be an artist. There was a lot of stuff going on with Trump and the direction the country was going in. And I know from behavioral psychology that you can’t really change people’s minds. They have to change their minds for themselves. The more you fight, the more hunkered-down they get in their positions. So I went to this Michael Mandiberg show called “FDIC Insured,” and it was about the banks that had all gone under since 2009. At first I walked in, and I was like, “Okay, this is interesting, this is a little quirky.” And then as I was going through it, it just started weighing heavier and heavier on me—all the people’s lives that this really destroyed. It just struck me that art was a way to touch people and help them realize things and change their own minds, rather than telling them what to think.

Have you realized just how difficult the world of fine art is to break into?

Absolutely. And I’m not even really trying to break into it, to be honest. Initially, I think I really was trying to do that. I picked up an iPad and starting finger-painting and doodling. And then I started printing on different materials and did my first show.

Max Rainoldi

How was jumping headfirst into 3-D printing? I hear it’s a labor-intensive process.

It is! I think it took like 100 hours to print each sculpture. I mean, I probably could’ve sculpted them. [Laughs] It’s funny. When I first started this whole thing, I thought that I’d learn to perfect certain crafts. And then I realized, you know, being where I am now at this age, I just don’t have the time to do everything I want to do and be an artisan. So I will do whatever it takes to get my message across. But to do this whole project in four months? It’s been challenging.

Wait, you finished “Beyond the Rainbow” in four months?

Yes! [Laughs] I mean, I had the initial idea for this project in October [of 2018]. I started kind of vetting it, and I didn’t really decide the specifics until February.

Max Rainoldi
Hercules “Fighting Monsters” by Chris Larson.

Speaking of specifics: “Beyond the Rainbow” is a trio of sculptures. Can you explain your inspiration behind each figure?

I’ll start with Hercules. I love him. He has all these struggles as a boy, as a man. He’s always fighting. He’s a champion. And the reason the piece is called Hercules “Fighting Monsters” is because in the medieval era, Hercules was [used to talk about] about moral issues. To me, Hercules represents strength.

Initially, I had this idea to have flags running through this, but my friend Ian—he’s a fantastic artist whose does single-line drawings—initially asked me a few questions [about the piece] like, “Is this powerful enough?” “Is this what you want to say?” And I don’t know why, but I saw him with his head cut off, and he’s holding a sign—the ACT UP sign. He was a way to talk about the AIDS crisis—to show people what the symbols mean. And it took me a few weeks until I realized that I’ve literally killed Hercules. And everyone loves Hercules. Everybody wants him to be a winner; everyone sees him as strong. So I was thinking about all of these strong people [chokes up] who lost all their strength during the AIDS crisis. I wanted people to understand. I wanted people to feel a sense of loss. I wanted people to see Hercules—this hero—lose his strength.

Wow, that’s so powerful.

The next sculpture is Venus. And I should mention that I’ve printed these in the opposite color of the person they were modeled after. I did this on purpose because I wanted to talk about racism. Sexuality and identity are not black-and-white, and people are not black-and-white. So Venus—I was struggling. This was the hardest one for me. I wanted to talk about women and lesbians, and I had to educate myself. I thought about a lot of different goddesses for this piece, and Venus fell into place for me for a few reasons. For one, she’s about beauty and sexuality. There are a lot of other complexities. Venus is about the way people are treated and the way people say hurtful things. I do this a lot [in my work], with Venus in particular; I challenge beauty and strength as being one [instead of as opposing traits].

Max Rainoldi
Venus “I Am a Lavender Menace” by Chris Larson.

Justice is last, right?

Yes! She’s epic. I was thinking of Stonewall. I didn’t know much about the goddess Dike. It was kind of an easy fit; I just googled the goddess of justice. And then I realized that Liberty—who we think of as justice, or Lady Justice—we have an Americanized version, which has a blindfold. In the past, she didn’t really have a blindfold. She had a scale and a sword. And I thought, Oh, it just makes sense to get rid of the sword and put a stone in her hand [as an homage to the Stonewall Riots]. I found this triangle-shaped concrete stone literally the day that I was going to go scan models for the sculptures.

You funded “Beyond the Rainbow” with your own money, and the sculptures aren’t for sale. Why was removing profit from the equation important to you?

Burning Man taught me this! [Laughs] [The festival] has 10 principles, and one of them is gifting. Say whatever you want to say about Elon Musk, but his whole concept of letting go of patents so that the rest of society can benefit—I think that’s incredibly important. In a way, I was self-made coming [to New York City] years ago. I’m super blessed. It’s never just you; there’s a series of elements that can help you get to where you are. This is something I love and am passionate about, and I felt like I needed to share those blessings. I also wanted to pull myself away from the glory of the project. It needs to be bigger than me.

Larson with Dike “WHY DON’T YOU DO SOMETHING?”

What’s the number one thing you hope people take away from “Beyond the Rainbow”?

To not stop fighting. The Justice piece for me right now—I mean, I think about trans people and their rights, and how the [current administration] is challenging their rights. Beyond the U.S., too, like in Chechnya, where gay people are being murdered. I’m worried that we can’t rest on our laurels, and we need to fight. That’s what these sculptures are about. Don’t get me wrong—I love the glitz and glamour. I love the rainbow. But it’s one thing to say you’re supporting something, and it’s another thing to actually act. And I think that’s what is missing so often.

“Beyond the Rainbow” will show at Burning Man 2019 in Black Rock Desert in Nevada beginning August 25.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella