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The overhead lights at Hunter Shaw Fine Art have been replaced with dim mood lighting, accompanied by grey painted walls and a jazzy film noir soundtrack. This pared-down environment contradicts the explosion of color and tangled shapes in the jungle scenes depicted in the modestly-sized drawings and gouache paintings hanging throughout the gallery. Wide-eyed monkeys peer through patterned leaves and knotted vines that are dotted with prancing bugs and squawking toucans. Artist Suzan Pitt made these works—all joyous, bursting celebrations of life—in the ’80s while on a Fulbright in the jungles of Central America.
The solemn jazz score emanates from Joy Street (1995), a short animated film, projected on a wall towards the back of the gallery. The opening scenes, which show a woman morosely smoking cigarettes and drinking alone, make it clear how well Pitt’s beautifully-styled illustrations translate to animated movement. In the film’s early moments, cigarette smoke flutters into the air, swirling gracefully, while washy painted backgrounds make up the dark interior of an apartment where the woman sits brooding. Suddenly—after the woman attempts suicide, collapsing on her bed—the tone of the film boomerangs from despondent to bouncily psychedelic, as a mouse figurine springs to life and starts flying around the room, gyrating to the song What a Wonderful World. The mouse celebrates with an unhinged abandon, while the life of the woman hangs by a thread in the next room. In the film, the illustrations of the woman are drawn with chalky pastels (her skin appears pasty and pale), while the mouse and ensuing “happy scenes” are depicted in crisp gouaches that look bright and rubbery. Eventually, the mouse carries the lifeless woman into a dream world where she becomes cocooned with vines, and immersed in the swarm of a jungle so rich with activity that its exuberance awakens the woman—her eyes plucked open by curious butterflies.
The film is at once heartbreaking, exuberant, ridiculous, funny, deadly serious, child-like, psychedelic, and profound. It ends with the woman, back in her apartment, joyously sticking her head out the window, her long hair dancing in the wind to a din of car horns, chirping birds, and city sounds. This scene importantly transfers the euphoria found in the dream world to the woman’s lived reality—here, Pitt argues for participation in the world around us rather than a naive, reclusive bliss. While made over 20 years ago, on the heels of Pitt’s own experience overcoming depression, the emotional backflips performed in the film seem an appropriate response to our cavalcade of contemporary horrors, and Pitt’s film ultimately argues that engagement with what is around us, though sometimes dark, is a vital part of seeking joy, both personal and communal.
Suzan Pitt: Joy Street runs from March 31–May 1, 2019 at Hunter Shaw Fine Art (5513 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90019).