The Return of Paola Pivi’s Ursine Oddities

In 2013, Paola Pivi mounted the first exhibition at Galerie Perrotin’s New York space with a celebration of eight life-size polar bears constructed from foam, plastic, and feathers. This April, the Italian artist is once again back in the city — this time with baby bears, all covered in a rainbow of candy-colored feathers. Propped on the floor, with a few hanging in mid-air, the roughly 70 bears will play, fight, and pose throughout the gallery. Speaking from her home in Anchorage, Alaska, Pivi explains that a tour through the installation should feel “as if you’re walking in a field of flowers, or through mud, that feeling of wetlands, wading through something.”

At the time of that first Perrotin show six years ago, Pivi and her husband, the songwriter Karma Lama (a.k.a. Karma Culture Brothers), were in the midst of a thorny legal battle with a Tibetan orphanage over the custody of their adopted son. The court case, which drew headlines and indirectly involved the Dalai Lama’s sister, left her feeling disillusioned about systems of power. “I used to be 100 percent naive,” she admits. But Pivi found encouragement in her art, particularly the bright and optimistic symbol of the bears. “The work kept sparking up from my mind in a very lively way,” she says. “It became a source of positive energy, a pure life energy, which is what my son has been all along.”

Having won the case, and now safely home with her husband and son, Pivi has turned her ursine operation into a family affair. For years, Karma Lama has been titling his wife’s work, although he, a former Tibetan monk, rarely writes. Instead, after seeing a piece, or hearing a description of it, Lama will recite lines of free-form poetry, which Pivi then jots down and from which she selects a title. For these new works, their son has been joining in. Possible titles for some of the new baby bears include “Time for bed,” “Here comes my mom,” and “What the heck, Pivi?”