Even though it's a weekday, Phoenix Art Museum is packed. I'm there with an artist, and an internationally acclaimed artist at that, but the crowds aren't there to see his work. They've turned out in the thousands to see the works of Norman Rockwell. Sculptor Larry McLaughlin and I haven't gone there to look at the paintings; we're there for lunch.
McLaughlin does, however, share in the admiration of the Americana painter. "I was looking at photographs of some of the stuff he did in a catalogue, and it was amazing," he says. "It might seem funny, someone who does the kind of stuff I do saying that, but it really was amazing."
The reason it might seem funny is that Larry McLaughlin's work is just about as physically dissimilar to Rockwell's as could be imagined. Most of his more noted sculptures are large figures, vaguely human in shape -- potbellied torsos and limbs -- but with a rough mud-doll texture. They look to me like human beings crossed with radishes, and as we sit down to lunch in the PAM Cafe, I make bold enough to tell him so.
He laughs good-naturedly at the description, and if he's offended he doesn't show it. It's hard to imagine McLaughlin being offended by anything. He's an ebulliently cheerful person. He may be in a better mood than anyone I've ever met. A woman I know says McLaughlin reminds her of Mary Tyler Moore: He can turn the world on with his smile.
She's right -- our waitress seems harried as she gives us our menus, but within seconds McLaughlin has her wrapped around his finger, teasing and trading quips with her as if they're old school chums. We both order prickly pear iced tea, from which the waitress promises she will carefully skim out all the spines.
I don't know art, but I don't have a moment's doubt that McLaughlin's a major talent, because he's the opposite of the brooding, intense poseur-artist. If he wasn't the Real Thing, the art community never would have been able to take this big, bespectacled, effusively genial man with his sweet toothy grin seriously.
His manner shows up in his work, too. His art -- most popular in France and in Northern California, though examples of it may be seen locally in the permanent collection on the grounds of Shemer Art Center -- does share with Rockwell's a vibrant, amused, life-affirming sensibility.
McLaughlin decides on the meat loaf sandwich. "I want something squashy," he declares gleefully. "I want meat! I have to eat meat, 'cause I'm leaving the country next week. I have a client in San Francisco, and she's going to be over there, too, and I'm meeting her in Geneva. And she said to me, 'You've got to eat as much meat as you can while you're in the States!' She said she won't eat any meat in Europe because of Mad Cow Disease."
He's managed to make the meat loaf sandwich sound like such a national blessing that I can't help it -- I order the same thing. After the waitress leaves, I ask McLaughlin how he stays so upbeat.
"To tell you the truth, I do yoga," he says. "I've done it ever since I was at UC-Santa Cruz; in those days, at Santa Cruz, you could just about major in yoga. That was one of the best things about it, is you didn't have to do sports, you know, those sports where you have to knock everybody over. You could just do yoga."
McLaughlin went to the University of California at Santa Cruz after growing up on a family farm in the small town of Litchfield, Minnesota -- the accent can still be heard in his vowels. Accordingly, he says, his influences include "a lot of Minnesota kitsch. I remember when I was about 10 years old, I went with my family to an auction, and I got a lamp that was a female figure. And I put it in the backyard with water coming out of its head. That was my first fountain, I guess."
He left Bullwinkle country behind for college. By majoring in art history and French studies, McLaughlin was able to spend a lot of time bumming around Europe, soaking up art. "Santa Cruz is such an independent school that every year I could pretty much make up my own proposal for a class," he says. He did design work for a firm in London, and in 1985 was accepted to the prestigious Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts (First National School for Fine Arts) in Paris.
"They charge you nothing to go to this school; they provide you with all the materials. You're in a socialist country. And you get to exhibit in the school's own gallery, which is right in downtown Paris. It's like, even though you're a student, you're taken seriously as an artist. That's what gave me the courage to keep doing this."
We get our meat loaf sandwiches, served with French fries, onion and a special ketchup. We've both requested mayonnaise on the side, and the waitress, who now seems to count McLaughlin among her dearest friends, has been happy to oblige. McLaughlin takes a bite of his sandwich, and with characteristic reserved understatement leans toward me across the table and says, "Mmmmmmmmmmmm!"
He likes it, I guess. I take a bite, and yes, it is pretty darn good at that.
Since McLaughlin completed his studies in Paris, his work has found its way into numerous museums, commercial properties and private collections, ranging from the Musée de l'Art Brut in Auxerre to the collections of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver and Linda Evangelista. For the last four years, he's divided his time between a house and studio he keeps in France's Loire Valley and a second house here in the Valley of the Sun, purchased as an affordable home base when California real estate proved too pricey.
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We finish our sandwiches, and decide to splurge on dessert -- McLaughlin orders the chocolate layer cake with caramel, while I opt for the Key lime pie with real chantilly cream. We share, and once again, from across the table: "Mmmmmmmm!"
I ask McLaughlin what he can tell me, if anything, about what he's trying to express in his art. "Marianne Mittelholzer Leuenberger wrote about that in the catalogue," he says. "A lot of what she wrote is very spiritual, and I suppose unconsciously, that's true." As is usual for visual artists, though, he can't put a specific meaning of his works into words himself. "In the big fat pieces, my intent is just a presence, you know, a physical presence. People will see an embracing couple, or they'll see" -- he gestures at me -- "a radish!" He laughs. "If people look at my stuff and don't say, 'What the hell is that?' I'm happy."
As we're leaving, walking through the courtyard at PAM, McLaughlin is telling me about a Mexican restaurant with mariachi music he's planning to visit that weekend. A middle-aged couple who look like tourists overhear him, and ask where the place is. He stops and explains it to them in detail, as comfortably as if he used to go over to their house as a kid for lemonade and cookies. Then, as we head for the parking lot, he calls warmly to them over his shoulder:
"See you there!"