Interview: Larissa Bates

Larissa Bates both celebrates the male gender identity within the history of art while struggling to disassemble heteronormative understandings. As a way to foreground these issues, Larissa has assembled a motley cast of idiosyncratic characters, all of her own invention. Like a method actor, Larissa has delved deep within the psychis of her creations, their implications and motivations. Set within the backdrop of expressive pastoral scenes, influenced by the work of Nicholas Poussin, hoards of fantasy creations lead their grandiose dramas. Larissa recounts the struggles of her imagined MotherMen, Lederhosen Boys, and Little Napoleons in an epic practice not unlike Henry Darger’s warring Vivian Girls. Her current body of work, “Just Hustle and Muscle” is on view at the Monya Rowe Gallery in New York, from now until October 18th. 

SL: Can you describe some of your influences and inspirations—whether visual, musical, ideological? 


LB: My influences fall in to two major categories: responding to other artists’ work, and investigating gender roles. Colier Schorr’s series of wrestlers from Blair Academy, and the power struggles depicted in Layla Ali’s miniature gouaches are both conceptually and formally fascinating. 

I spend a lot of time working alone and listening to NPR and books on tape. I am not sure how directly that influences my work, but it gets integrated. My favorite show right now is actually “Voices in the Family” with the psychologist Dan Gottlieb. Parenting and family are the places where gender roles become most compelling and interesting to me. 


SL: Many of your paintings feature centaur-like wrestlers set against pastoral scenes, recalling the expressive qualities found in French Renaissance artist Nicholas Poussin or Persian miniatures. What made you decide to insert the iconic figure of male wrestlers within this setting? 


LB: Initially I developed an interest in the western Landscapes of Thomas Moran and Bierstadt. Many of their paintings supported the idea of the untamed, empty western landscape. The frontier ties into the concept of the cowboy, which relates to our current ideals of masculinity. This conceptual interest in landscapes expanded into a formal interest in a range of landscape artists—which brought me to the works of Gainsborough and Poussin, among others.

SL: Occasionally you insert incongruous references into the works—such as laser beams or grid like overlays- why these visual strategies? 


LB: The laser beams and grids reflect more of the visual culture of my current time. If all of the paintings were in the style of Poussin and the Northern Renaissance painter Joachim de Patinir, I don’t think that they would reflect the contemporary culture that they are meant to address. The paintings are influenced by everything from Rococo painters to video games, so they incorporate a wide range of references. By using references from many genres, I depict a mythical space that exists now, even as it draws from the near and distant past—1980s to Renaissance. 


SL: This world is also strangely devoid of feminine characters, the closest are the so called “MotherMen”—why do you choose to focus on the male form as a vehicle of exploration? 


LB: My interest in examining social constructions of masculinity grew out of my early years of being raised by a single father. My dad was trying to raise me in a culture that left very little flexibility for him as a “macho man” single parent. My college thesis was an attempt to create a maternal masculine world—one that would reflect the experience we had. There was just a lack of dialogue and imagery that was relevant to our family structure. This eventually led me to broader questions about our gendered expectations of what it means to be masculine or to be a man. 

I am specifically interested in looking at the most socially reinforced constructs of masculinity. A rigid definition of “masculinity” can be limiting in the same way as prescriptive gender roles are for women. Not everyone fits into these roles, or feels most authentically themselves when they wear gendered masks. Who wants to have to be aggressive, strong, independent, and tough all of the time? Those are qualities to be honored, but not all men or people identify with them. In heteronormative relationships I have seen a lot of girls criticize their boyfriends when they don’t act in a hyper macho way—they get freaked out by it, or by close male friendships—seeing it as a threat to their partner’s attraction to them. It disturbs me that mainstream culture confines men to such archaic gender archetypes. 

Simultaneously there are amazing parts of traditional ideas of masculinity—there is no simple answer. Those same hyper-macho characteristics are celebrated by the paintings as well. I am just trying to open up the dialogue about the complexities of manhood in our culture. 

It is also interesting to think about how we translate the qualities of independence, aggression, toughness, and stoicism into our Cowboy politics. 

Fostering pluralistic constructs of masculinity lets me see a world that more accurately reflects my personal experiences with the men in my life—my husband, father and best friend. 


SL: What led to the creation of these characters? 


LB: I wanted to have a character that was not threatening to the viewer, but that drew them in to look at what was happening in the paintings. The Little Napoleons acted as a cartoon vessel through which to view colonialism and masculinity. They are also called “Head Honchos.” They are occupied by three purposes: destroy the MotherMen, who threaten the Napoleon’s rigid gender script; take over the world; and become proficient with as many weapons as they can get their hands on. When the Napoleons go into battle they forget about their babies and drop them. The babies then float away to other islands where they spawn new colonies of Napoleons. They propagate themselves like mold spores. 

The Napoleons also grew out of personal questions. My great great Grandfather was the vice president of United Fruit Company in Costa Rica—one of the notorious “banana republics.” This raised questions for me about the social psychology of being a colonizer—what forces need to be in place so that you feel okay to colonize? How does a person end up in that role? 

I love reading about social psychology and group dynamics. The psychologist Aronson talks a lot about contributing factors to group violence. He talks about the anonymity of uniforms, or how working for a company or a greater organization like the military contribute to the sense that the blood is not on your hands. It is like being under an umbrella, in that there is a tremendous diffusion of responsibility. He also looks at the structure of racism and slavery. Once you have harmed another person you experience cognitive dissonance. You think “I am a good person…and I did harmful action,” the behavior is incongruous with your self-perception so then you blame the victim. “I am a good person, and I harmed this person because they deserved it, therefore they are deserving of this kind of treatment.” Once someone has harmed another person and justified it in their heads, the next round of violence can magnify in intensity. 

The Napoleons act out these fundamentals of human behavior. They are a cartoon substitute for our nature. They, like most people, are not all bad but they do very bad things at times. They also do wonderful things. Their role is complex. They switch between the roles of being the villain, the comic relief, the care-taker, the loyal unquestioning groupie, the endearing trickster, and the enthusiastic soldier.


SL: Two main sets of characters appear throughout your recent paintings, the MotherMen and Lederhosen boys. There are also “Little Napoleons” in red coats. Can you talk about what these allegorical figures mean to you, within the context of the body of work? 


LB: The Ledherhosen Boys symbolize our individual inability to regulate behaviors towards those we love. They kind of have the problem of the holding-a-kitten-that-is-so-cute-that-you-want-to-squeeze-it-to-death towards the MotherMen. They love the MotherMen, and love to cast séances featuring the MotherMen’s wrestling matches, but at times they can also be harmful towards the MotherMen. They are into supernatural things and like to douse for water, cast spells, or lead séances. They also like to ride dirt bikes off cliffs kind of in the style of lemmings. They may be a bit self-destructive and unable to control their tendencies—they are hyperactive little kids. My grandmother likes to say that toddlers are simultaneously “suicidal and vandalistic,” and they are a bit like that but old enough to know better. 

SL: How do you think the characters within the world you have created interact with each other—do you invent stories regarding their histories? If so, can you relate one such story of their interactions? 


LB: The Napoleons have three missions—to take over the world; to obliterate the MotherMen; and to collect massive amounts of weapons. They are entirely preoccupied with these missions. The MotherMen have one defense against the attacks—they cry giant black tears that flood their surroundings. The MotherMen then swim away in their pool of tears—escaping the Napoleons. I wanted the MotherMen to embody characteristics that are associated with both masculine and feminine gender scripts. They are at once strong physically—the embodiment of the Greek ideal of the Kouros. Their emotional strength is garnered from their ability to be vulnerable—to cry instead of kill. The Napoleons look feeble in comparison, they are bumbling and cartoonish, and rigid in their adherence to their macho ideals. They don’t actually know how to cry and they punish each other if they don’t carry a stoic front at all times. 

Eventually the Napoleons succeed in killing a few MotherMen. The infant Napoleons then make their way to the feet of the crucified MotherMen and begin to cry—this is a first for their kind. Then all of the infants won’t stop crying and the Napoleons are flabbergasted—they were never taught how to comfort their infants. They take them to the living MotherMen to learn how to care for the wailing infants. 

Different paintings portray these dynamics manifesting in various ways; they are images of the themes I am exploring rather than an illustration of a literary story. 


SL: There was also an installation depicting sculptures of these characters—why the incorporation of multimedia/three dimensions? How do you think it works in dialogue with the two dimensional paintings?


LB: The sculpture is a reference to Kiki Smith’s Untitled sculpture from 1990—her wax cast of a man and woman who are each leaking out semen and milk. Thick milk is dripping from the nipples of my lactating wrestler MotherMan. He is an effigy of the maternal male figure. The Lederhosen Boys stand around a TV monitor that plays wrestling matches of the MotherMen—that is their séance. 
I like exploring these themes in two dimensions and was excited to see how they played out in three dimensions. Even when I am not producing an “official art piece,” I am constantly investigating, meditating and feeling out gender/life issues. The way I do that best is visually, and my visual explorations can encompass two dimensions, three dimensions and performance. 


SL: How do you think the latest body of work, “Just Hustle and Muscle,” relates to your prior series? 


LB: “Just Hustle and Muscle” is a continuation of my prior series. The story just continues to develop as more characters are brought in and I struggle with more questions about gender roles. 


SL: What other exhibitions or upcoming projects are you working on currently? 


LB: I don’t think I am done with this series—so we will see how it plays out. 

To view more of Larissa’s work, go to: 
Larissa Bates 

Or visit: Monya Rowe Gallery 

Image Credits: 

Images from the series “Hustle and Muscle” Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery, New York 

Images from the series 

Sleeping MotherMan with Lazer Beams after Poussin’s Narcissus 
Acryla gouache on canvas 
8 x 10 inches 

Bouvaisa Saitiev Single Leg Take Down 
Acryla gouache and ink on canvas 
10 x 8 inches 

MotherMen Birthing Scene at Bingham Bluff 
Acryla gouache and ink on canvas 
16 x 20 inches 

Lederhosen Boys Electric Shock Seance 
Acryla gouache and ink on canvas 
8 x 6 inches 

Single Leg Take Down in Landscape after Joachim de Patinier 
Acryla gouache on canvas 
10 x 8 inches 

Lederhosen Boys in Persian Miniature 
Acryla gouache and ink on canvas 
12 x 8.5 inches 

Missiles Just Miss the Old Wooden Ship 
Acryla gouache, ink, acrylic, flashe and oil on panel 
6 x 20 inches 

Snow Shoeing to the Kachina Dolls 
Acryla gouache, ink, water based oil on canvas 
24 x 30 inches 

Napoleans Surround Wrestler in Front of Hunting Cabin: Man Power 
Ink and acryla gouache on canvas 
18 x 24 inches 

Mothermen Wrestling in Washington Allston’s Desert Landscape 
Acryla gouache on canvas 
12 x 9 inches 

Lederhosen Boys Fire Seance 
Acryla gouache and ink on canvas 
12 x 9 inches

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