Suzan Pitt, “Chichicastenago Parrot” (1989), watercolor on paper, framed, 11.5 x 14.75 inches paper, 21 x 24.5 inches frame (all images courtesy Hunter Shaw Fine Art)

LOS ANGELES — The words “approachable” and “relatable” do not often come to mind when describing most art gallery viewing experiences, yet they feel apropos in the case of Suzan Pitt’s Joy Street at Hunter Shaw Fine Art. Colorful, illustrative, and strikingly unpretentious, the work on display more readily conjures memories of Saturday morning cartoons or the Rainforest Cafe than most contemporary art.

The titular work, “Joy Street,” a hand-painted animation from 1995, follows an urban-dwelling woman in the throes of depression when a cartoon mouse character magically comes to life in her apartment after she attempts suicide. The mouse takes the woman’s body to a nearby city park, which transforms into a fantastical tropical forest that rejuvenates the woman and inspires her to keep living. The film ends with an image of the woman back in her apartment, head thrust outside of the window, hair whipping wildly in the wind. She looks radiantly at the noisy street below her, filled with (what else?) joy.

The protagonist’s journey mirrors Pitt’s own experience with depression from which she found relief by traveling to the rainforests of Central America on a Fulbright Grant. There she made the nine paintings exhibited for the first time in Joy Street and experienced a break from her depression that became the basis for the animation’s storyline. What could easily become a tired, problematic narrative of the Western artist traveling to an exotic country on a mission for self-discovery is tempered by the emotional frankness of the work.

Several studies indicate there may be a direct connection between color perception and mood, with depressed patients perceiving the word as a more drab, colorless place than non-depressed ones. Regardless of these studies’ validity, the paintings that line the gallery walls do shake with vibrant intensity, as if the person making them were seeing color for the first time. However, they lack the emotional depth of the animation, which carries not only the paintings’ exuberant joy but the pain that preceded them as well.

Installation view of Suzan Pitt: Joy Street at Hunter Shaw Fine Art

Some elements of the exhibition feel unnecessarily stagey, such as a vitrine in the middle of the room which houses various objects from the making of the animation, including a picture of Pitt drawing in the rainforest and some musical composition notes. The vitrine, not listed as an artwork on the checklist, seems to lend the exhibition an air of importance, much like a museum display case would. But Pitt’s work speaks for itself and, in my view, doesn’t need props to justify its existence. The topics Joy Street brings up, such as mental illness, urban density, and environmental concerns are relevant on their own.

In an art world that often prides itself on emotional detachment and intellectual coolness it feels refreshing to see work that seems like it was made not for market value or as a demonstration of academic prowess, but simply in order to survive.

The vitrine in Suzan Pitt: Joy Street at Hunter Shaw Fine Art

Suzan Pitt: Joy Street continues at Hunter Shaw Fine Art (5513 Pico Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) through May 5. 

Jennifer Remenchik is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles.