Los Angeles Artist Alia Penner on Her Technicolor Collaboration With Swiss High Jeweler Piaget

Piaget commissioned works from the artist as the first in a series of installations for its new Rodeo Drive store.

Alia Penner. Courtesy of the artist.

Since it was founded in 1874, Swiss jeweler Piaget has become known for creating pieces akin to works of art. In fact, it has a history of collaborating with artists such as Salvador Dalí, who in 1967 created a special watch and jewelry collection inspired by his famed Dalí d’Or coins.

The house is now honoring this heritage with a series of specially commissioned art installations that will be exhibited at its new boutique on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. For the opening, it has tapped artist Alia Penner, a Los Angeles native with a circa-1960, psychedelic Pop aesthetic.

Penner has created everything from collage paintings to video animations to Tom Petty album art and performance sets for Father John Misty. With her colorful, Surrealist work, she’s been called the “Frida Kahlo of Instagram.” The artist also serves as the creative director of L.A.’s popular Cinespia film series, and cofounded the nonprofit Women of Cinefamily with actress Brie Larson.

Recently, between her swirl of projects, Penner connected with Artnet News from her home studio in Los Angeles to talk about her creative process, her love for old Hollywood, and—thanks to Piaget—her newfound obsession with gold.


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A post shared by Alia Penner (@alia_pop)

How would you describe your practice, and how did you start making art in the first place?

I come from a long line of cinematographers. My grandfather was a cinematographer and I even found out that my great-grandfather used to take photos as well. We were Mennonites, and so he would take pictures of God’s wrath—tornadoes and earthquakes and things like that. My dad is a 3D cinematographer, and he’s flown all over the world, filming things my whole life. He’s a really big inspiration to me.

When I was little I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I wanted to go into fashion, and I wanted to be a filmmaker, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten to experience every kind of art form and creation. You know, I’ve painted on the wall, on a human, even on horses! So, it’s hard for me to describe my work.

How did the collaboration with Piaget come about?

I got a call from my friend Apple Via, who I’ve worked with in the past. We did some cool political installations during Occupy. And she was like, “I have this new client: Piaget.”

I didn’t know its history of working with artists like Salvador Dalí, and how it’s been around forever. So I was very honored when they asked me to participate in this project.

Tell us about the paintings Piaget commissioned you to create.

Getting to make paintings that are framed, that are going to be hung on a wall, is something I haven’t done in a while. Especially when you’re something that the art world can’t necessarily nail down, being able to put your work up on the wall and be like, “Yes, I’m an artist” is really gratifying.

It was really fun to make these. They’re much bigger than what I normally make. And there was really a lot of freedom.

What was the spec, and what were your inspirations?

Piaget is a historic company that makes watches, so there was a lot of talking about time—the present and the past, and how they combine. How can we bring Piaget’s outlook on joyfulness and its history of celebrating art into Hollywood and Los Angeles now?

That relates to the way that I create work, because when I think about my Los Angeles, I really think about preserving the history. That’s really the inspiration behind where I’m at with my artwork right now.

We were so aligned, it felt like a no-brainer. One of Piaget’s design inspirations is sun radiance, and I love putting halos around my characters’ heads. I also love gold and blue, colors that are really important to Piaget’s visual identity.

Alia Penner, <em>Marion</em>, commissioned by Piaget. Courtesy of Piaget.

Alia Penner, Marion, commissioned by Piaget. Courtesy of Piaget.

How did you go about creating these pieces?

In the beginning stages, I really wanted to figure out, Who are my main characters? I found these amazing old magazines from 1923 and 1925, movie magazines from the silent era. I loved the paper quality and how they were photographed, and I went through them for a long time.

It’s interesting to look at these magazines because even though it’s a hundred years ago, to me, it feels so relatable, like almost nothing has changed. My main character for the larger piece is the movie star Marion Davies, who was William Randolph Hearst’s mistress for his whole life. I love the Hearst Castle; I love the blues of the Roman pool.

The other painting features the actress Marie Prevost, but it was really inspired by Dalí. There are a lot of archways in his work, which I think of like portals into the art. Have you ever seen his tarot deck? It’s really beautiful. He does this thing where he’s almost collaging these lithographs with painting. That was an inspiration for what I was creating.

We’d love to hear more about your process.

It probably sounds crazy: I went through those one-hundred-year-old magazines, and I cut them up. There’s something magical that’s infused in the paper—if I didn’t put that into the work, I feel like it would kind of lose its magic.

I don’t sketch anything out. I really just put the collage piece onto the paper and I see how the lines can come from them, and go around them to make them part of that specific space.

I used gouache for these pieces. I have not painted with gouache since I was in college. I love how chalky it is—it feels almost plastic-y. And I like to mix my colors based on the color that came before. So each color tells me what to do next. It’s vibrational.


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A post shared by Alia Penner (@alia_pop)

Your paintings are being installed inside Piaget’s new Rodeo Drive boutique, which will have an exclusive high jewelry collection inspired by Los Angeles and its sky. How has the city inspired you and your works?

I love Los Angeles with all my heart, so that is the most special part of it all. There are so many amazing writers that have written about the Los Angeles sky. I think I even took a class about Los Angeles literature, but most of the writers were talking about the sky.

But again, I’m really inspired by Los Angeles history. And any company that wants to honor their history and bring it into the present day, like Piaget, I completely admire, because I think we should all remember where we came from, and how we got here.

I didn’t immediately put it all together, but Marion Davies is buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which is where I’m the creative director of this film series, Cinespia. I pretty much live half my life at this cemetery. So I’ve spent a lot of time with her, and I didn’t even think about it until I was halfway done with the painting. I was like, Wait! This is my friend!

The Rodeo Drive boutique was itself conceived as a sort of artwork, with its façade swathed in Piaget’s Milanese mesh gold. What else can we expect?

My works are going in this little lounge in the back, where you get to see Piaget jewelry on trays. It kind of feels like an art salon. I can’t wait to see it all. It doesn’t feel real until the diamonds and watches are all there, you know? [Laughs.]

Do you wear Piaget jewelry?

I have to figure out what I’m going to wear to the opening party. Honestly, I’ve never worn fancy jewelry, so that’s really the cherry on top, you know?

I love their watch necklace. It’s something that Piaget has made for a long time, on a really long chain with colorful heart stones for the dials. It’s so beautiful. I will put gold hearts all over my nails. I’m going to use gold on everything now. I’m obsessed.

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