Robert Larson’s Art Made with Cigarette Packets Plumbs the History of Tobacco

Installation view of “Robert Larson: Processing Commitment” at CES Gallery, Los Angeles. Courtesy CES Gallery and the artist

Installation view of “Robert Larson: Processing Commitment” at CES Gallery, Los Angeles. Courtesy CES Gallery and the artist

Streets, sidewalks, empty lots, and back alleys—this is the urban landscape that Santa Cruz-based artist  navigates in order to source materials for his works. The artist has spent more than 20 years searching for particular types of cigarette and matchbook packaging, which he uses to create patterned, geometric, and as of recently, metallic, works that engage the history of tobacco and its crucial influence on our culture. The painstaking act of collecting means that it takes months and sometimes years to complete just one work. Artsy caught up with the artist to learn more about his current exhibition “Processing Commitment” at CES Gallery and the lengths he goes to find this paraphernalia.
Artsy: Can you speak to your interest in cigarette packets? Why has this object—and the culture of smoking—dominated your work?

Robert Larson: Over the years—since I first started working with discarded cigarette packaging in 1991—my appreciation for the subject’s literal significance and symbolic and metaphoric potential has grown tremendously. Tobacco’s place in world history and particularly the history of the American colonies, the United States, and of course Native American culture is enormous. That my investigation takes place largely in the landscape of its continental origins has special resonance when examining its transmutation from sacred plant to global commodity.

My interest in the subject was first spurred by looking at it through the lens of art and art history. I saw ’s Campbell’s soup cans reflected in reverse in Marlboro’s mirrored image—red, white, black, and gold symmetry, both iconic American brands but with very different associative sentiments and content. Ideas came to mind that resonated with the rough urban American landscape I found them in, and these in turn contrasted strikingly with the images that have been put forth by Madison Avenue advertisers. I looked around and thought—this too is Marlboro Country.
Artsy: What do you hope to express through the works in “Processing Commitment”?

RL: First, I want people to get excited about what can be discovered in our everyday surroundings through close and careful observation—and to revel in how extraordinary things can be done with the most mundane and overlooked things around us. Most importantly, I would like to inspire a sense of urgent yet contemplative self-reflection that engages the individual and their sense of being part of a larger collective body. A communal introspection, if you will, that looks at difficult shared truths and addresses these truths in a creative, transformative manner that ultimately transcends their topicality and weaves contemporary concerns with those that are universal and timeless. 
Artsy: How does your method of collecting these objects relate to your creative process?

RL: Walking is a very personal, meditative and, contemplative practice for me. Every step of my creative process is influenced by the virtues of the inherent slow, deliberate pace of walking and the unique opportunity it affords for one to observe and reflect.  

I think that the receptive spirit that observation and collecting fosters has shaped my sensibility both visually and conceptually when it comes to notions of painting, mark making, and an artist’s approach to such engagement. While my work continues to explore the realm of painting without tactile trace of the artist’s hand, touch is paramount. Hundreds of unnamed people touched the matchbooks, used them, consumed them, and discarded them, a collaboration of many persons unwittingly moving the items forward, in this case, towards art. On the surface, their touch, like mine, remains invisible and therein lies a tantalizing paradox—overwhelming evidence of human activity and individual anonymity.
—Rachel Will

Processing Commitment” is on view at CES Gallery, Los Angeles, Sep. 19 – Oct. 31, 2015.