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Photograph: Hollis Johnson

Paola Pivi’s neon-colored bear sculptures take over Perrotin Gallery

The Italian artist’s life in Alaska inspires both art and a fear of bears

By Paul Laster
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An Italian artist who works in numerous mediums, Paola Pivi creates enigmatic work that involves animals and everyday objects. She’s lived in Alaska for the past decade, which probably accounts for her obsession with—and fear of—polar bears. Fuzzy, Day-Glo versions of them covered in feathers were presented in her 2013 exhibit at Perrotin, which marked the first New York show for both the artist and the gallery. She’s back with another ursine installation, only this time it comprises 70 baby bears crawling around Perrotin’s space. Sitting among them, Pivi explains how these carnivores came to feast on her imagination.

Photograph: Hollis Johnson

You live in Alaska, so have you actually crossed paths with a bear?
Yes! You’re basically living on their land, and there are horrible stories of people being killed by them—even in town—and not that rarely. The Alaskan landscape is so beautiful, though, that you just want to park your car and start walking around, but I’m terrified of being attacked. Even when I’m back in Italy and go into the woods, I have to keep telling myself, There are no bears, there are no bears. They can make you into a meal. Something everyone forgets is that humans can be eaten.

For this show, you’ve traded adult bears for baby ones. Why?
Every time I have a meaningful experience, it trickles into my work five or six years later. In this case, it was when I adopted my son, who was five at the time. The process took a long time, so when he finally arrived it seemed sudden and unexpected. I figured that would somehow appear in my work, and it did. I should add that the bears turned out to be more like preteens than infants, but that’s okay because my son is now 12.

Photograph: Hollis Johnson

The bears are made from scratch with non-oganic material, but why not use taxidermy?
Because I don’t believe in killing for art.

So, how are they created?
They’re sculpted, but if I told you the process, I’d have to kill you.

Um, all right. How do you select their poses?
My husband and son make suggestions, and I also study pictures of bears. Some of the poses wind up being natural, some acrobatic and some totally crazy.

Photograph: Hollis Johnson

Why are they neon-colored?
There’s no premeditated reason. It just seems to open a channel for communication—like the yellow vests in Paris.

Are you commenting on the growing threat of the mass extinction of species, including polar bears?
Not consciously, though it makes me furious. Mostly, I want to express myself within a language of art, and baby bears in weird poses and strange colors is the language of art that I like.

Photograph: Hollis Johnson

Is this show meant to make us laugh or to think?
It’s meant to make you think as hard as you can. You should never stop thinking. But if you laugh, that’s welcome, as well.

Paola Pivi’s “We are the baby gang” is at Perrotin through June 8 (perrotin.com).

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