From Ike to Obama: Arnold Mesches Exhibit at Frost Spans Generations

Categories: Art
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Subversive art on display at Frost.
Arnold Mesches was tailed by the Feds during the Hoover years for what they considered to be subversive paintings casting President Eisenhower's America in a corrosive light. When the painter obtained his FBI file in 1999 under the Freedom of Information Act, it contained close to 800 pages that further fueled Mesches' activism and imagery. His haunting compositions are currently on view in "Florida Artists Series: Selections from Anomie 1492-2006," at the Frost Museum of Art. His work mines social and historical issues impacting contemporary society. And recently we got to mine his mind for clues on what makes this prolific artist keep going at 87. Continue to the jump for our Q&A.


New Times: Can you tell us what inspired the Anomie series on view at the Frost?

Arnold Mesches: I was reading Kim Levin's essay, "The Agony and the Anomie." The dictionary definition of Anomie is "the moral decay of society," a sentiment that exemplified my take on the history of my years.  Days later my wife and I almost stumbled on some figurines while walking on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach: a small Aunt Jemima, a headless Christ and an also beheaded Roman centurion, which I promptly photographed.  Months later, after many trial sketches and wanderings, they were juxtaposed with religious figures, and a Caribbean landscape from Columbus' journeys. I, very tentatively, thought that I might have opened a way for me to talk about history. Only after a few more paintings did I have an inkling that I was possibly into "the moral decay of society," from my perspective.  Fifteen of the 49 paintings of this series are being shown at the Frost Museum thru Art Basel.  

How do you fold such disparate elements together to create what often appears to be such seamless narrative imagery?

By combining unlikely juxtapositions, both in painting techniques and disparate imagery, I try to create the sense of utter instability and sheer insanity that I feel has so often permeated my years.  Instead of, as in my salad years, veering toward the overt, I have, for some years now, found myself depicting our time with a sense of unreality bordering on the absurd.  My images come from my knowledge of art, the daily press, torn magazine pages, my camera and sketchpad, mythology, Coney Island, all useful metaphors for the blatant idiocy of our convoluted shenanigans and wasteful bloodletting.  Absurdity asks the viewer to question, not only what they are seeing and feeling but, more importantly, why they are questioning their awakened uneasiness.  Hopefully, the dichotomy is only enhanced when one is seduced by the richness of the painting's surface and the enticing vividness of color; beauty as an art language to complement the darkness and the humor.  This is the core of my recent work.

The FBI opened a file on you in 1945 and it grew close to 800 pages of information by the time Hoover died in 1972. What did you discover in the file when you obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act in 1999 and how did the files appear in or influence your work later on?

I discovered that several neighbors, students, models, friends, lovers and colleagues were reporting my every activity, political or personal, in weekly reports (for which they were well paid) to the FBI.  While I knew those many years but, what I didn't know was the extent of their nonsense:  Not only did they clock my marching for peace ("a Communist line"), but they even recorded the birth and weight of my children along with the hospital they were born in.  When I received the pages I converted them into THE FBI FILES, a 57 piece collage and painting exhibition of the pages as contemporary illuminated manuscripts.

Is it true one of your students hid a tiny camera in his necktie to film you lecturing in class? Can you tell us about the political environment at the time?

The "student" was an FBI agent posing as an art student in my drawing class.  I hope he learned something about drawing while suffocating in a tightly fastened shirt and tie on that blistering hot LA evening.  This was at the height of McCarthyism, right after the demolition of the studio unions, followed by the Hollywood Blacklist, the House un-American Activities Committee hearings, the jailing of the Hollywood Ten, etc, etc, etc.  It may well have been America's darkest hour.  

Has your subject matter always veered toward criticism of the establishment?

The world is too complex to be so limited.  I painted over 200 portraits in 6 1/2 years, sunsets on a Caribbean Island called, Culebra, off of Puerto Rico, where we spent winters, many other things that bespeak of the fullness and beauty of the landscape and our beautiful, but endangered, planet.  But, no matter what I paint, I think the fury and passion is always apparent in the slashing calligraphy and urgent gesture.  I am who I am and it will come thru with each stroke and every line.  Blocking it is the end.

You are going to have two shows up in South Florida during Art Basel. What are you going to exhibit at the Dorsch Gallery next month?

I shall be showing 36 paintings from two series, Weather Patterns" and "Paint" at the Brook Dorsch Gallery in Wynwood, both executed in the past 2 or three years.  In "Paint" I am simply decrying the avante garde mantra that "painting is dead."  By referencing a few past greats, overlapped by this painter's work habits and methods, I hope to bring renewed life to a very much alive history. That word again. Painting is dead; long live painting.  Some friends and colleagues have said that the smaller group of paintings, "Weather Patterns," brings to bear the precariousness of the fledgling Obama administration's attempted resurrection from the Bush years.  I know they are about precariousness but, while they may have something to do with the present political arena, I know that they have much to do with the overall frightening picture, climate change, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the constant, daily struggle of chance.

Many younger artists steer clear of tackling political issues in their work these days. Do you consider yourself as much an activist as a painter?

I am an artist who remains aware of the world.  There are many young artists who are, in untold ways, tackling political issues.  Perhaps not enough. But, one thing I have tried to do in my own work is to make art the dominant force, not overt politics as such.  The world is much too complex to stay in the realm of propaganda.  Art must be the dominant factor, always. And, then, it will have meaning.

You are in your eighties and still teach and paint. How often do you make it to the studio these days?

I am 87. The Frost and Dorsch shows will be my 130th and 131st solo exhibitions.  I still have much to say before they shovel dirt in my face; I am in the studio 24-7, embarking, hopefully, on a new series, that may or may not come to fruition.  If not, hopefully, there will be others.   I teach Graduate Seminar at the University of Florida in Gainesville where I was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Art.



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