Derek Larson: An Animated Analysis on Factories & The Death of The Shopping Mall

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Shopping malls were once the most popular social spaces in America, from their rise in the late 1950s to the golden age in the 1990s, up until their ever-rapid decay as online shopping began to take its place, malls played a major role in shaping our culture. Teenagers spent their days, not on their phones, but roaming the sticky floors and hanging in the food courts, and malls were sprawling with the hustle and bustle of hurried shoppers around the holidays in step with cheery jingles playing through speakers.

Most of America has left shopping malls behind and now consider it an errand instead of a fun afternoon activity, and while they may have gone into decline across the country, local artist Derek Larson finds new inspiration with them.

In his latest exhibit Conveyors, on display at ADA Gallery, Larson looks at the decline of shopping malls, delving into the cogs running these now ghost-town social spaces, with his motorized paintings which operate on conveyor belts and rollers which move in front of and behind various paintings. With this latest series, Larson also highlights factory conditions, autoimmune diseases, and American animation.

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“Malls were designed to be limitless landscapes of choice for consumers to have an experience- {now} just add pretzel smells, music, a carousel and voilà you’re now working in a factory except you’re not earning money you spend it!” Larson said.

The exhibit features a set of works that detail another paragraph to Larson’s personal statement against the grossly autonomous ends left scattered and barren from the remnants of an industry that carries across multiple domains. And with an estimated 25 percent of malls closing nationwide by 2022, Larson’s work may serve as a harbinger of a growing epidemic.  

A Seattle native, Larson begins his dissection, bringing to life the outlying beauty he grew up in. “The conveyor paintings are about a number of things for me, though {mainly} the colors remind me of childhood, like mossy trees and scummy buildings in the Pacific Northwest,” he said.

The canvases move like the background of a traditional animation and suggest factory automation through their hardware and stripped down construction. As Larson moves to the finer points of the work, he highlights the factory conditions he started out working at in high school, driving forklifts and packing trucks.

“The machinery behind the paintings is very heavy and overbuilt, acting like roller conveyors, and certain types of machinery bring back strong memories for me,” he said.” He continues with the fabric as “like those old-style hand dryers”, later clarifying as the “cloth ones”, exemplifying a persuasion to detail hinged on childhood recollections.

Receiving his MFA from the Yale School of Art and participating in a number of exhibitions worldwide, Larson combines traditional forms like painting and minimal composition with three-dimensional abstractions. And with prior experience as a video editor at PBS, Larson’s work combines traditional and modern digital techniques of painting and animation, in paintings that are intensely colorful, glowing, minimalist compositions on wooden panels yet expansive in its abstract progressions.

“Factory jobs are a big political and economic topic, these paintings hint at some of these topics by combining tractor parts, motors, conveyor belts, and fabric, which is clothing to suggest bodies and shopping,” Larson said of his work.

Most notably, was his fascinating take on the immune system, in which he responded to his Crohn’s Disease diagnosis with inspiration, forced to learn the inner workings, only to find the same mold cast.

“I’m mainly interested in autoimmune diseases {since} basically it’s your immune system attacking healthy cells, which usually results in minor or sometimes major inflammatory problems. It’s also an interesting metaphor for systems malfunctioning.” Larson said.

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His latest venture, Très Mall“, is a 90-minute animation video series taking place in an abandoned department store in Savannah, Georgia, a grimey yet tasteful nostalgia where an artist, ‘Jon’ decides to call home. It features cameos by writers covering topics in art, activism, philosophy and the environment.

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“With Très Mall, the main character lives in a department store like in the movie Mannequin, but more depressing,” he said. Larson builds each episode upon rubbled remains and favored memories that are relatable to many people, utilizing “Acrylic on dura-lar screen prints” and other relic technologies, all intended to mimic the traditional cel animation Larson’s character relishes upon in a modern age

The overarching theme, and perhaps the one time I’ll ever make such an easy connection between body tissues and factory belts, is a fixation on the factory system Larson forewarns of, ever present, each time you go in and buy something.

“When you look at the design and machinery behind an experience, it becomes clear what’s expected of you and free will begins to fade away,” Larson said.  

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