Mall Art

A vacant store serves as the backdrop for an animated film at the Jepson Center.

I came of age in the early ’90s, quite possibly the Golden Age of the shopping mall. The local mall was a place to buy things, sure, but mostly my friends and I would wander the stores for hours with empty wallets, making sure we were seen in all the right places. 

Savannah-based artist Derek G. Larson’s latest exhibition, “Très Mall,” uses the American institution as both a backdrop and a symbol, which is fitting because Larson grew up in Seattle, where seminal malls such as Northgate — one of the first post-war suburban shopping centers ever built — influenced the design of malls across America. These days, though, it seems that shoppers are looking for a different kind of experience, and the exhibition’s title works double duty to reflect these cultural tensions. (Being “very mall like” can also be interpreted by the ear as “très mal,” which translates to “very bad.”) 

Larson earned his master of fine arts degree from Yale School of Art then worked as a video editor at PBS and has participated in a number of national and international exhibits and residencies. Last May, “Très Mall” debuted in New York City’s Times Square, an icon of American capitalism. 

Playing continuously at the Jepson Center in Savannah until April 1, 2019, “Très Mall” is currently a 50-minute, three-episode film (though Larson wants to add to the series) following three fictional Savannah artists as they try to reimagine what to do with a shuttered clothing store that sits in a strip mall the main character has inherited. 

Larson, who wrote, directed and animated the series, has an animation style reminiscent of Beavis and Butthead; that is, if Beavis and Butthead ended up going to college, reading philosophy and taking some serious sedatives. Larson’s laid-back characters encounter animated versions of real-life intellectuals and broach topics such as art, philosophy, activism and the environment with insight and intellect rarely found in this medium. 

But in between references to Marx and Heidegger, “Très Mall” is also quite humorous, poking fun at millennial consciousness, corporate brands and television news pundits. 

As the protagonist and his friends try to reimagine the store, the mall serves as a symbol and a space to explore a sense of disconnectedness in a seemingly connected world.

Larson, who teaches animation and new media at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, sees his main characters as a mix of Gen-X and millennials. “The concerns are immediate and inspired by being around my students,” he says. As far as Larson’s view of the millennial-led future, he simply says he’s “cautiously optimistic.”

Rachel Reese, Telfair Museums’ associate curator of modern and contemporary art, sees Larson’s work as branching into new territory. “I think what’s interesting about this work is that he’s collaborating with thinkers in other fields — scientists, philosophers, economists and environmentalists — and bringing them into his artwork,” she says. 

The experience of viewing “Très Mall” in an auditorium with others invites viewers to participate in the world Larson creates — a kind of performance art that poses difficult questions and elicits a few chuckles too.

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