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‘Eaten alive by my own art’

“Hitting The Wall,” 32×24 inches, painted three-dimensional relief on panels by Dennis Larkins. (Courtesy of the artist)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Between designing sets for the legendary San Francisco rock promoter/impresario Bill Graham, penning posters for the Grateful Dead and monumental sets for the Rolling Stones, Dennis Larkins kept migrating back to New Mexico like a lost homing pigeon.

The artist, who created sets for Led Zeppelin and The Band’s “The Last Waltz,” now shows his work at Santa Fe’s KEEP Contemporary. Larkins’ current work retains the raucous sensibility of his rock ‘n’ roll past through a retro pop/surrealist lens. He’ll be part of a three-artist show with Santa Fe’s Dirk Kortz and California artist Van Arno at KEEP from June 18-July 18.

Larkins came to Embudo in 1967 to paint landscapes after studying at the University of Colorado.

“I always considered myself kind of a revolutionary artist, because I wanted to do something no one had done before,” Larkins said. “What nobody was doing at the time was landscapes.”

His were no ordinary landscapes; they were more Fauvist-Expressionist hybrids. In 1973, he moved to Berkeley, California, where his wife’s family lived. He found a job as a cleaner at the San Francisco Opera.

“I had literally been there a week and the phone rang,” Larkins said. “My wife’s younger brother worked for a promoter named Bill Graham.”

The job was to create a blow-up of an album cover for a band named War featuring Eric Burdon of The Animals.

“It was a fairly simple job in that the album cover was a street scene,” Larkins said. “I don’t think I even asked how much. He handed me an envelope of money. That was the beginning of a vibrant, scenic rock ‘n’ roll career.”

At the same time, Larkins was promoted to paint mixer at the opera, eventually rising to the position of scenic artist.

It was a frantic, schizophrenic life, toggling a treadmill between highbrow and lowbrow art from day to night.

“We were the expatriates from New Mexico, just pining to come home,” Larkins said.

He soon became Graham’s go-to stage designer, designing rock ‘n’ roll shows for nearly a decade. By day, he would paint flowery Rococo opera sets à la the French artist Fragonard; at night, he’d be creating the sets for the Rolling Stone’s American “Steel Wheels” tour in 1989.

“I was lucky to survive it,” Larkins said of the latter. “I had this team of kamikaze rock ‘n’ roll scenic artists.”

His Stonehenge set for the 1977 Led Zeppelin show resurfaced in miniature in the 1984 classic rock parody “Spinal Tap.”

“It’s one of the few great honors of my career to be parodied in ‘Spinal Tap’,” he said with a laugh.

He rarely met the actual musicians, although he did get to watch the “The Last Waltz” rehearsal starring The Band. He borrowed its famous chandeliers from the San Francisco Opera. But he was too exhausted to attend the show. He did get to meet the Grateful Dead, who were notoriously picky about their promotional art.

“They were very approachable,” Larkins said. “Jerry (Garcia) was very gregarious.”

He returned to Santa Fe in 1981.

It was “burnout,” Larkins said. “I was so done. It was literally leave or die. It was night and day around the clock.

“We came back,” he continued. “We were like Bedouins going back and forth across the desert.”

He started painting three-dimensional landscapes. None of the local galleries would sell them until a traditional Canyon Road gallery finally agreed.

“I started selling out,” Larkins said. But, after a month, the gallery owner called and told him to come pick up the rest of his stock because he was “beating up” all the other artists.

“I’m selling too much; therefore, I’m a failure,” Larkins said. “The experience I had was being eaten alive by my own art.”

He credits the opera for his fascination with 3-D relief, still prominent in his current work, as well as the psychedelic posters of Alton Kelly and Stanley Mouse. Larkins returned to California in the late 1980s, this time to Los Angeles, to create theme designs for Walt Disney Imagineering, Warner Bros., MCA/Universal and Sega GameWorks, to name but a few, creating scenes in the Batman films I and II, and in “Coming to America.”

“At the end, I was a basket case again,” Larkins said.

He returned to Santa Fe for good 12 years ago. He says he forged his style from retro-pop surrealist imagery, blending traditional painting techniques with sculpted, three-dimensional relief .

“Life’s circumstances and personal growth flipped me from doing an external landscape to an internal landscape,” he said.

The painting of a family of skeletons parked in a parched New Mexico landscape seems especially current, with its collapsing car culture and dinosaurs.

Although it was created years before the pandemic, “The New Normal” shows a couple wearing skeletal masks on airplane seats.

“These people aren’t even relating to each other,” Larkins said. “Outside the window is ‘The War of the Worlds.’

“I use skeletons as a metaphor for truth,” he added. “As in the emotional truth – bare to the bone.”

Larkins’ work hangs in the collections of the Estate of Bill Graham, Cheech Marin, Don Henley and the late photographer Baron Wolman, and at Santa Fe Community College.

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