Dennis Larkins – Much More Than “That Grateful Dead Guy”

Dennis Larkins – Much More Than “That Grateful Dead Guy”
by Adam Perry for the Santa Fe Reporter

It would be a crime to sum up the career of Dennis Larkins by saying that, over the past fifty years or so, he’s moved from glorifying classic American images of the 1950’s and 60’s to using zany sci-fi characters to make classic American images of the 1950’s and 60’s terrifying. Equally heinous, though, would be to identify Larkins (who will be signing his new book Startling Art at the Jennie Cooley Gallery in Santa Fe next weekend) as “that Grateful Dead guy” because of the amazing but infrequent artwork Larkins has produced for the Dead since the early 80’s.

A better description of Larkins’ diverse legacy—which features masterful works ranging from watercolor to rock concert posters to acrylics—might be “dark satirist,” because Larkins, who could be called the Kurt Vonnegut of visual art, has always turned heads by juxtaposing the mundane with the truly fantastic.

Take “Seedling,” an acrylic/painted relief, for example. In it, Larkins expertly paints a scene of a smiling woman who just gave birth in a cheesily idyllic hospital room, complete with roses by her bedside and flowery drapes. However, like many of Larkins’ classic works, there’s a big catch: The doctor and nurse effusively doting over the happy new mom are wearing strange oxygen masks and electronic frontpacks straight out of Lost in Space—and the baby is a green alien with tiny antennae and bug eyes.

Somehow, Larkins has created countless images with the I Love Lucy-meets-Invaders from Mars theme and truly kept each one unique. Most impressive in the pages of Startling Art, though, are photographs of the giant-scale set designs Larkins designed and built for Bay Area promoter Bill Graham in the 70’s and 80’s. Larkins painted most of the massive images on the floor at San Francisco’s Winterland, the now-defunct mini-arena that was the Grateful Dead’s “home field” in the 70’s, and later assembled them as sets surrounding the stage at Oakland Coliseum for mega-concerts by bands including Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Santana. The detail, creativity and serious manual labor involved with these incredible set designs really comes through in the photos, which actually make one wish concerts of that scale were still prevalent. Perhaps the Flaming Lips should give Larkins a call.

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