April 11 – May 11, 2014
Shock & Awe, Acrylic on Canvas, 12 x 12 in., 2011
Coming Attractions 4, Acrylic on Canvas, 80 x 60 in., 2005
Eternal Return 2, Acrylic on Canvas Collaged on Canvas, 50 x 63 in., 2013
At 90, Mesches’ powerful trans-generational art-world voice has been speaking about the American social landscape for seven decades; his “enigmatic landscapes, cityscapes and nowhere-on-this-planet-scapes” are, as the art historian Robert Storr noted, “a snappy hybrid of vintage social realism, “Day of the Locust” burn-the-set backdrop painting and de Chirico-esque metaphysical puzzle-picturing in which nothing is quite itself, everything stands for something else and the viewer is on notice that after crossing the visual threshold of the uncanny realms Mesches depicts they are on their own.”
Mesches’ works are represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the National Gallery, among others.
As its inaugural one-person exhibition, Life on Mars gallery is proud to present new works by Mesches with this, his first solo exhibition in NY in 11 years, beginning April 11th. The works presented have never been exhibited in NY, and will be from Mesches’ series Coming Attractions, the more recent Shock and Awe, and the in-progress series Eternal Return.
Driving one night over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge from Olana to Catskill in upstate New York, I began ruminating on the work of two artists from the Hudson River School who lived in this area nearly two centuries ago. Thomas Cole resided in Catskill, while Frederick Church, the more opulent of the two, later settled into a chic Persian mansion, called Olana, built on the hills overlooking the Hudson River. Suddenly, without recourse, Arnold Mesches came to mind as I was attempting to discern a painter of our time who painted as well as Cole and Church but from an entirely different perspective. Mesches works independently from the trends set forth by the status quo. Slightly offbeat, which accounts for his dream-like abandon, he is a painter who defines the old in relation to the new, a painter who lives fortuitously in contrast to the resolute, high-minded, country-style gentlemen of yesteryear; an artist who is more connected to the metropolitan painters in New York, from the early Ash Can painters to the abstract expressionists. He is as diligent, even-handed and heroic as any of those who preceded him.
As I moved at a slow pace with the residue of urban traffic, acutely conscious of the light descending into darkness, as in one of Cole’s great Luminist landscapes, my view from the bridge suggested the kind of instant laconic depth often found in Mesches’ paintings. In recent years, his work has become more acerbic, increasingly taut, descriptive, painterly, imaginative, forthright, bold, unremitting, undulating with the sudden affect of grandiose spectacles overlaid with personal introspection. Looking out into the night while driving onward, beyond this studded steel bridge, it was as if I were seeing an immense paradoxical vista, the kind of vista that might enter the mind’s eye without hesitation. His paintings are about this kind of precise encounter. They take us to regions of doubt, often beyond recognition. They weave through our senses on the near side of calamity and locate the hidden junctures of malevolence and harrowing dismay. His paintings reek and holler at us, inciting incantations of dark thundering disbelief – paintings conjugated from internal sources and emanating through his brush, fraught with harrowing memories. Arnold Mesches is brilliant in the manner in which he weathers the storm, one tempest upon another, with such ineluctable grace, with the facility of an incandescent visionary. His landscapes of people are created on the prowl, on the lookout for what is unseen, yet lurks within the visible, for the sudden turn in history where things begin to go sideways through the media of deception. As a painter, he stands against the ugly pretense of righteousness, which is not his world or the world he believes in.
I met Arnold Mesches in Santa Monica in 1977 through the photographer, James Welling, who had just written a text on Mesches’ recent paintings. Welling was convinced that we should meet, and drove us (Janice Gabriel and I) over to his studio near the beach. It was crowded with racks, with hundreds of paintings from various stages of his career. Later, we reconnected in New York in the early 80s where Arnie had moved to East 7th Street, east of Tompkins Square Park, with his wife, the writer Jill Ciment. Those were the days of the East Village, a perfect context for Arnie, who had just started showing with Jack Shainman. By the end of the 80s, we were close friends. Although I was coming out of a background in Conceptual Art, I somehow connected with Mesches’ work as a painter, and eventually learned of his history as a political activist, which I discussed in an essay written for an exhibition at P.S. 1 more than a decade ago (curated by Daniel Marzona). The historical show focused on collages using documents based on Mesches newly discovered FBI files. It was this engagement with the artist’s work that gave me a hint of his courage to stand up for what he believed (during the McCarthy era in Hollywood where he was being “shadowed”). It was also a clear view of the artist’s brilliant sensitivity and extraordinary loyalty on behalf of his friends.
His recent series of work (and title for the current exhibition) at Life on Mars Gallery is Eternal Return. I regard these paintings as another leap forward. How to explain this? Over the years I have gotten to know Mesches’ work. I know what he has done and have articulated why I believe it is important. But Eternal Return exceeds whatever I have known in the past. Although Mesches admires Goya, I believe it would be inappropriate to compare these paintings with the pintura negra. Even so, their shared visionary aspect both eludes and raises many questions. Who are these people? I begin to compare the content in Mesches’ paintings with Boltansky’s stacks of telephone books in the basement of Le Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In both cases, Boltanski and Mesches – one a conceptual artist, the other a painter – raise a similar question: How many people have lived on planet Earth? Does the subject matter refer to Jews returning to the Promised Land? This seems too limited or, maybe, too illustrative; also the historical moment appears somewhat ambiguous. I never thought to ask the question. Perhaps, I need to hold the mystery in abeyance, which I believe is the source of power in these paintings. As I study the contours, the color, and the gestural application across the surface, it is undeniably the work of Arnold Mesches. They are deeply inspired works. That is all I need to know for the moment. These paintings belong squarely in the present.
– Robert C. Morgan, 2014
Freud wrote of an oceanic feeling—a sentiment “present in millions of people, a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded. . . .” He was writing about the birth of religion—but he could have been writing about America in the eyes of Americans. Hollywood. Images of popular fantasy crashing over audiences like silver-white breakers.
Two events trumpeted the Bronx-born Arnold Mesches’ arrival to Hollywood in ’46. He found work as a set illustrator for Tarzan and was arrested for going on strike. Painting sets and marching the picket line—contributing to this society’s self-mythologization while protesting its bare-teethed advances—have defined Mesches’ work for nearly seven-tenths of a century. And while Hollywood grew and then collapsed, much as a cohesive Left, he has remained.
Since then, there have been ups (his resume is ripe with appointments and mural commissions) and downs (1956: his studio is believed to have been sacked by the FBI, who’d been spying on him for quite some time). He dropped in on the Vietnam-era protest generation. In ’68 he dropped out of painting entirely, spending the next six years writing two novels. With the exception of that hiatus, Mesches has been painting like you’d paint a house or a protest banner—with speed, and with purpose.
Over the years, his subject matter has ranged from portraits of himself and friends, to naturalistic street scenes (take the formative 1945 oil “Plaza Preacher”) to realistic compositions made surreal through shocking juxtapositions of the everyday and the uncanny. Then there is his Anomie series, which deploys the same symbols of Americana (Native Americans, soft-serve ice cream, biplanes) within a cut-up dreamscape of disassociation and panic.
His palette and handling are as frenetic as the culture he documents, and are similar to another painter’s impressions of America. One of de Kooning’s first memories of this place was watching a waiter in Hoboken pour coffee into a line of cups, not caring that most splashed over the sides. “He just poured fast to fill it up, no matter what spilled out.” At times, that’s how Mesches handles his paint. He also doesn’t restrict himself to postwar American society, “the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere,” as Robert Frank once put it. He grounds the everyday in a deep traditional of humanism via images lifted from Europe’s classic painters. In a series from the 2000s, Mesches faithfully recreates classics by El Greco, David, Goya and Van Gogh, but then adds brushes and paints to the compositions to highlight the labor and tools involved. Even iconic painting is production, and thus, it is political.
He’s less a painter’s painter than a people’s painter—an artist for whom art’s power lies in its democratic, emancipatory potential, an artist for whom painting’s death can be cured with black coffee and corned beef hash. He’s been political since the beginning. The FBI said he looked like a Communist because of his paint splattered pants. How many artists can claim a Howard Zinn catalogue essay? Yet the paintings rarely feel political. Critique is chromed and candied. While we find Mesches in line with the great satirists—Hogarth and Daumier—it is as if they were given handfuls of peyote and led into Death Valley.
Two recent series speak to how he has witnessed the country change. First is his Shock and Awe series. These can be seen as postcards from Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, specifically Tod Hackett’s dreams of painting a large canvas of Los Angeles in flames. But the two verbs—shock and awe—with their short, broke-jaw resonance, won’t be separated from Iraq for a long time. Perhaps there is a middle ground. The words could be used to describe the fear and wonder one might have felt in the ballistics lab of an early cinema. To those early viewers, the train arriving at the station of La Ciotat encapsulated the same technological violence, divorced of speed and power from space, as was felt by cruise missiles.
The flames of this series morph into dense crowds in his Eternal Return series. These paintings of crowds speak to a time when the individual was consumed by the collective—an amalgamation of purpose and experience. Everyone eyes forward, rushing to get on the train, or to leave the movie theater or ballpark. That’s not how crowds look nowadays; it’s not where crowds look. A crowd, if you’ve noticed lately, is nothing more than a thousand different thumbs caressing a thousand different iPhone screens.
Mesches has always given us our visions of ourselves. These works are nostalgic, reminiscent of a time when perhaps America was a bit more unified. As John Cheever put it, a “long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationary store, when almost everybody wore a hat.”
At one point, crowds would come to see one image: the screen. Now, with a screen for each viewer, that oceanic feeling has evaporated. We’re left alone in the salt flats of our own minds, overwhelmed by light, unsure what is mirage and what is geography.
-Hunter Braithwaite, 2014