Startling Art! A Conversation with Dennis Larkins

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I’d be willing to bet that most of you know Dennis Larkins’ work and don’t even know it. Despite his expansive, 40-year-plus art career as a 3D painter and being one of the major players in LA’s Lowbrow movement in the ’80s and ’90s, Larkins is probably best known for his rock art, having created some of the Grateful Dead’s most famous gig posters for their now legendary stints at the Warfield in San Fran and NYC’s Radio City Music Hall in October 1980.

Like many artists, Larkins was well accustomed to having parallel careers, working as a scenic artist, set designer and rock n’ roll art director, while still actively pursuing his own artistic exploits. In the late ’80s, he went from Dead artist to Disney Imagineer, designing exhibits and attractions for Disneyland and Disney World.

But then there was the other side of Larkins’ work: the sci-fi nerdery, the dark humor, the sculpted dimensional relief … this is where it gets particularly interesting, at least from a designer toy standpoint.

Let me put it this way: the whole premise behind the toy movement was to redefine the canvas; to take characters from a 2 dimensional world and reimagine them in 3D. To make them tangible, ‘real’, and in a form that is more interactive for the collector. Well, Larkins had a similar idea about 30 years prior, but did it without abandoning the canvas. Instead, he started building upon it. Using foam, rubber and various plastics, Larkins pioneered a whole new chapter of conceptual realism. By applying a combination of low- and high-relief sculpture right onto the canvas, he’s able to create the illusion of an entire scene popping out at us. Some paintings have many layers, some only a few, but even his ‘deepest’, most complex pieces never exceed five inches. This was entirely new to the art scene in the 70s and transformed the canvas’ expressivity.

I recently caught up with Larkins to discuss his work, his plans with Stranger Factory and his move back to Santa Fe, NM, from LA after a 20 year absence.

Who or what first inspired you to make art? When was this?

I have been creating art of various kinds from a very young age. My first memory is of copying Disney comic book covers at age 5. Many years later, as an adult in the 1980s, it was very ironically satisfying to become a theme park designer for Walt Disney Imagineering in BurbankCalifornia.

You coin your work as “Startling Art.” There’s a lot of truth to this. While there are many otherworldly (and often catastrophic) elements in your work, it still possesses an unsettling familiarity to it. Women lay oblivious in the sun with bags over their heads while comets rain down from the sky. Humor me: is there a bit of social commentary at work, here?

 The “social commentary” embedded in most of my paintings is certainly a factor; however, the idea is to encourage responses based on the perception of the viewer. I call this process an “open-ended narrative” which provides elements of story telling without forcing a fixed interpretation. I believe the “familiarity” you refer to is related to my use of different elements derived from retro-pop culture. I consider the vast image “library” created over the years (advertising, pulp illustration and graphics, comic books, etc.) to constitute a shared visual vocabulary.

Your website describes the subject matter of your paintings as “ranging from edgy to darkly humorous to whimsically cosmic.” Is creating a dialogue and potentially challenging your viewers’ perceptions important to you?

My artistic intention is less about challenging viewer’s perceptions than inviting dialogue. I enjoy hearing other’s (sometimes surprising) stories about the narratives I’ve presented.

Was there ever a defining moment in your life that directly influenced the themes in your paintings?

In my early career my paintings focused on responding to the external world with an occasional & surprising foray into the subconscious. As time went on the emergence of an inner landscape became so strong that I was compelled to unconditionally commit to this kind of exploration. I’ve been on this particular path for more than 20 years.

Aliens and explosions aside, your work also possesses a unique quality in that it’s “painted dimensional relief on canvas”. In other words, your paintings are literally three-dimensional.  What sparked your desire to redefine the canvas’ form of expressionism? Has your work always been 3D?

I have been creating dimensional paintings since the mid 1970s. I was originally inspired to add dimensional relief to my paintings as a result of working (for three seasons) as a scenic artist for the San Francisco Opera. I was a scenic artist for stage and screen for many years.

You moved to Santa Fe from LA about five years ago. That’s quite a change in scenery — have you noticed a shift or evolution in your paintings or process since relocating? 

My wife and I “returned” to Santa Fe after being gone for almost 20 years. However, I originally came to Northern New Mexico as a young artist in the mid-1960s and was part of the local art scene here, off and on, into the late 1980s. Although my work is not “place-based” I do respond to my surroundings and occasionally create pieces that are part of my “Southwest Pop” series. Cowboy culture, etc., is a rich and fun source of pop references!

You had mentioned that you were in the midst of working on a Rock Art poster when we last spoke –something you’ve been doing for years, most notably with The Grateful Dead. What band was this latest bill for? Are you allowed to reveal it?

For the past year or more, I have been creating rock poster art for a San Francisco bay area band called Moonalice. A notable aspect of this band is that they commission event poster art (at least one per concert appearance, sometimes more) from a large group of very talented artists, including many of the icons of the “Golden Age” of Rock Art! Through their generous patronage, Moonalice is literally reviving a nearly extinct art form!

What’s on the agenda for the remainder of 2012? Any Apocalypse parties?

I’m currently designing and painting a series of original, hand painted bass drumheads for Moonalice and am also working on a commissioned matching pair of paintings for my New York agent. I’m also looking forward to contributing to a Halloween show at Stranger Factory and an “atomic” themed group show here in Santa Fe. Beyond that, I hope to be involved later this year in stage design for a high profile rock & roll tour and possibly an exhibit project in California.

What are your thoughts on the art scene in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque areas? Are you involved? Do you personally connect with it?

I do like to be involved with local activities as much as possible. I have shown locally over the years (including when I didn’t live here) and have many friends here with shared creative sensibilities. I have shown with Brandt and Kathie in the Los Angeles art scene so finding them in New Mexico was a wonderful discovery. Stranger Factory is a good example of a locally based creative resource that is also connected to a national and international art scene.

Check out Dennis’ work at Stranger Factory: PRINTS | ORIGINALS

Visit Dennis’ site here

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