Did you know the iconic Spinal Tap Stonehenge joke exists in part because of Santa Fe artist Dennis Larkins? Well, to be more specific, Larkins designed the Led Zeppelin stage set that would be parodied in the 1984 Christopher Guest film, and that’s pretty much the coolest thing ever. Larkins worked with so many of the big rock acts—The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead and so on—in the earlier stages of his career that it’s almost shocking he calls sleepy Santa Fe home now. These days he’s more about broadcasting messages through heightened portrayals of an elusive post-World War II sense of Americana. Lucky for us, Larkins shows regularly at local gallery KEEP Contemporary, where his new exhibition Duality Zone will open this week (5-8 pm Friday, July 21. Free. 142 Lincoln Ave., (505) 557-9574). We checked in with Larkins to see what’s what. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. (Alex De Vore)
I want to describe your work as ‘Americana-meets-surrealist-doomsday.’ Do you think that’s fair? Are you aiming for any specific content goal or is this stuff just what comes out of you organically?
As far as my specific intent, it would come down to the use of...nostalgia. I refer to it as a commonly shared visual vernacular, meaning that images from popular culture and our shared past sort of combined together to create that visual vernacular we share where it’s possible to communicate through the use of images pulled from their original context but with embedded meaning. That may or may not have anything to do with the original intent of the original source, it’s like collaging, taking images from sources and pulling them out of context, putting them into new context and creating a new narrative. I personally like the vintage stuff, because it has embedded emotional appeal. You can have a recognition of it without knowing what that source has been, but it’s carried within you as part of the culture we have.
I think images by their nature transcend time and space. They can come from another time and have the power of that time. When you combine that with similar images to create a new story, you can take something from the past and have it mean something in the present. I call it ‘the bridge,’ the way the viewer has access to the ideas embedded within the narrative. I don’t consider myself a nostalgia artist per se, it’s just that that kind of material has a lot that can be accessed beyond its original intention. The fact that it’s nostalgic is maybe a little nefarious on my part because I’m sometimes using the nostalgia to hook someone, but that hooking is how I invite them into the actual content of the painting.
Let’s talk about the new show, Duality Zone. How are you personally defining it, if you even are defining it?
I think duality is something that’s embedded in the human condition and experience, and it’s certainly embedded in our cultural programming. The title for the show was inspired by a painting I did recently that was going to be the flagship of the show but sold immediately…and it features a local landmark, the Saints and Sinners sign in Española, which is the essence of duality. The painting is about the juxtaposition between saints and sinners, good and bad, light and dark, happy and sad, whatever—you could go on and on. It’s like the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and the stories we tell each other about who we are—more often than not on these superficial levels that have to do with judgment of good and bad. The truth is, all of my paintings are about duality on some level—the push and pull‚ the give and take. We’re in such an extreme version of our culture now where it’s all interpretive. It’s all about belief as opposed to truth or reality, and all of these things are subjective, relative to the filter you’re looking through.
You have a background in design for rock ‘n’ roll bands. Would you say that makes you at all anti-establishment and, if so, does that mindset still find its way into your work?
We’re in the duality zone answering that question, because to be a mirror of the world around you is to deal with commentary, and commentary—depending on how deeply or sharply you care to look at various situations, events and circumstances of our world—puts you in a position as a commenter to sometimes be a critic. At least an observer. To be anti is to imply being outside looking in, but the truth is we’re all co-creators. I wouldn’t say I’m anti except to the extent that all of what you could call modern or contemporary art is anti-social by nature.