LOS ANGELES — Gazing upon the paintings of Lydia Maria Pfeffer’s Lily of the Valley at Ochi Projects, one feels as if they have stepped into another world. A festive place, a space for play — think Hieronymus Bosch sans the suffering and religious overtones. Here there is no moral condemnation for the figures on display, no plea for redemption. Instead Pfeffer has created a world more akin to Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, or Where the Wild Things Are. One could easily imagine the cast of part-human part-animal characters sprawled across her paintings coming to life only in children’s rooms after the lights are out and the adults are asleep.
Fertility, abundance, and the feminine role in creation are consistent themes across the exhibition. In “Belle of the Fertility Spring Ball” (2021), Pfeffer presents an anthropomorphized frog figure who dons a bumblebee costume and a pink bunny crotch belt. Figures bob in the background, dancing at the same spring ball. Says Pfeffer in a discussion with artist Trulee Hall, “this anthropomorphizing of animals has always been an obsession of mine … They are these magical beings that connect with everything.”
In other paintings such as “The Magic of Women” and “Happiness” (both 2021), this aforementioned sense of connection is vibrantly on display. In “Happiness,” two lovers caress each other in a kind of ecstasy that suggests a romantic relationship, while in “The Magic of Women,” something more akin to friendship is on display. Both vibrantly painted and extremely generous with detail, smaller creatures appear in unexpected places, whether it be an insect-like man splayed across a vase in “Happiness” or the egg breasts of a birdlike figure in “The Magic of Women.”
While not explicitly sexual, Pfeffer’s paintings are certainly erotic, with their sensuality presented in a mostly theatrical way. In “Arachne’s Spring” (2022), Pfeffer constructs the titular Arachne’s lingerie using the delicate imagery of a spider’s web. A commanding presence replete with eight eyes (six embedded in her cheeks) and a set of small-but-strong fangs, she shines in her emerald negligee as she seemingly directs the melting of the snow and the oncoming birth of spring.
Like many of the pieces, “Arachne’s Spring” is a story of vindication. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the human Arachne boasts that she can weave more skillfully than the goddess Athena. In their subsequent duel, Arachne weaves a tapestry of the deceptive god’s abuse of humans while Athena spins a cloth depicting the god’s rage at humanity’s hubris. When Athena sees what Arachne wove, she rips it up out of anger, either at its superior beauty, the content of its storyline, or both. Arachne, stunned, hangs herself and Athena spares her life but condemns her to live as a spider. In Pfeffer’s world, however, the story gets turned on its head; Arachne is freed from captivity and what once was her punishment — inhabiting the role of a spider — now becomes her crown.
Lydia Maria Pfeffer: Lily of the Valley continues at Ochi Projects (3301 West Washington Boulevard, Arlington Heights, Los Angeles) through April 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
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