Valeri Larko – Sign of the Times at Lyons Wier

Valeri Larko in dialogue with Art Spiel

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Valeri Larko, “In the Beginning” on site in the Bronx, 2019, oil/canvas, 30” x 24” Courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery

Valeri Larko’s paintings in Sign of the Times, her solo exhibition at Lyons Wier Gallery depict urban environments at the fringes, where motels past their time, colossal billboards with bombastic one liners, neglected industrial buildings, and dead trees pepper the landscape. The imagery is familiar yet uncanny. Valeri Larko shares with Art Spiel on the body of work in this show, what draws her to this landscape painting, and how she approaches her painting on-site. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic the show is available online but the physical exhibition has been postponed.

AS: You are a landscape or rather urbanscape painter. You seem to be fascinated by abandoned places, perhaps at the fringes. What draws you there?

VL: I’ve been fascinated by the fringe areas of the city since the late eighties when I moved to Jersey City right out of art school. I painted a lot of figures in school and thought I would go that route, but I also liked painting landscapes on location. One of my favorite paintings sites while still in school was an old graveyard near my apartment in Plainfield, NJ.

Industrial parks surround Jersey City and that opened up a different way of looking at landscapes. I became intrigued by the way the built world and the natural world intersected in these sites. Early on, I painted a lot of industrial sites eventually expanding to bridges, urban waterways and salvage yards. Regarding the abandoned sites, I’m interested in places that are about to disappear, the stories these places can tell about our recent past and where we are headed.

Much of what I paint no longer exists or looks very different then when I painted it and this is the nature of the city to always be in flux. One of my goals is to capture the sites that are rapidly changing before they are gone and lost forever.

AS: What would you like to share about the body of work in Sign of the Times at Lyons Wier?

VL: The paintings in Sign of the Times focus on billboards and other commercial signage and the odd juxtapositions that occur in the urban environment. The title of the show gets its name from an installation of small paintings of billboards in and around the Bronx. The title also refers to the strange era of planetary and political upheaval in which we currently live.

My fascination with billboards began during the financial crisis of 2008-2009 when I noticed the increasing appearance of blank billboards popping up in the Bronx and beyond. Since then, some of those billboards have remained blank while others have hawked both religious and anti-science messages as well as, a plethora of advertisements for personal injury lawyers. In this series of paintings I contrast these dire warnings with the recent proliferation of more inspirational signage. The blank billboards offer the viewer an emotional respite amongst the incessant din of 21st-century messaging. That the blank billboards are often beautiful is as added bonus.

AS: Please take us through one painting in the show – origin, idea and process.

VL: The Holiday Motel had caught my eye over the years, but it wasn’t until I saw it with the dead tree in the planter that the composition and story came together for me visually. Originally, I was attracted to the signage of the motel harkening back to an earlier time. I thought about the stories it held as a destination for people as part of their well-earned holiday. I met Andrew, the current owner of the motel while I was painting on site. He filled me in on the motel’s history including that his dad owned it before him. It used to have a café, which was a very popular place for people to take a break from the road, have a cup of coffee, or get something to eat while traveling down Rt 95 back in the 50s and 60s.

The hotel is well past its prime and the dead tree embodied the feeling I got from the place. It also picked up the color of the brick and played well off the fencing encased in artificial greenery. The actual billboard was not as interesting as the rest of the view and I kept hoping it would change while I was working on the painting, but it didn’t. Finally, I decided to replace the billboard with one I had seen in another part of the Bronx, When you Die you will see God.” I found irony in the Holiday Motel name and in the “When you Die” billboard. Two bold promises, likely not delivered.

My working method has remained pretty consistent over the years. For Holiday Motel, I made a few small sketches with a rollerball pen in a black book. As with most of my larger paintings, I then painted a small color study on site. This helps me decide on composition and what size canvas to stretch. After that I order custom stretcher bars, stretch linen canvas and gesso with acrylic gesso, then go back on site to paint the large version on location. I usually work on one painting in the morning and another in the afternoon because after about 3 hours the light has totally changed. Holiday Motel was my morning painting.

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Valeri Larko, Holiday Motel, Bronx, 2018, oil/linen, 36” x 32”, Courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery

AS: How do you see your painting in relation to photography?

VL: While the paintings are very detailed, they are not photographic in nature. I’m not looking to reproduce a scene in exact detail, instead my goal is to capture the feeling of a place and I use the details as a way of sharing the stories of these sites.

I prefer to paint on location rather then from photographs because I get more involved in the world around me by experiencing it first-hand. Working from life, I’m not removed from my subject matter the way I would be if I worked from photos in my studio. Interacting with people I meet who live and work in the areas that I paint is an important part of my practice. It gives me the opportunity to learn the history and the stories behind that places that I paint. A large painting can take me 2-3 months to complete and if I’m working on a series, like the Bronx Golf Center paintings, I can spend several years painting at the same location doing multiples scenes. This method of immersion into a site make the process much more interesting and I think ultimately, it is reflected in the paintings.

AS: How do you see your work in context of contemporary landscape and plein air painting?

VL: If I had never moved to Jersey City, especially so early in my development as an artist, I doubt I’d be painting what I do today. That funky urban landscape grabbed my imagination, and combined with my love of painting on location, has provided me with endless inspiration.

In reference to plein air painting, I prefer the term “on site painter”, because most plein air painters aim to capture a scene in one or two painting sessions. I go for the long view and like to spend weeks or in the case of a large painting several months on one landscape. Working in this manner, I get to fully experience a place and learn about the people and place in a deeper way.

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Valeri Larko,15 Minute Parking, Bronx, 2018, oil/linen, 32″ x 64″, Courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery

Sign of the Times recent paintings by Valeri Larko at Lyons Wier Gallery, 542 W 24th St, New York, NY 10011.

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Valeri Larko painting on location at the abandoned Bronx Golf Center, 2017. Photo credit: Amy Regalia

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: