Arnold Mesches was born in 1923 in the Bronx, NY and raised in Buffalo, NY. He moved to Los Angeles in 1943 to accept a scholarship at the Art Center School. Mesches began his fine art career in 1945, moved to New York City in late 1984, where he lived for 18 years before moving to his current home in Gainesville, FL. He has had 124 solo exhibitions to date as well as countless group shows, is represented in major museums and collections throughout the country and is married to novelist Jill Ciment.
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“By the Rivers of Babylon”
By Robert Storr - 2007
Arnold Mesches is an old hand. You wouldn’t know it from the vigor of his drawing, which is the essence of his art. Nor from the expansive scale he works on, despite the fact that drawing is often thought of as an intimate communication between the artist and the viewer who, metaphorically anyway, hovers over his or her shoulder. For if, at age 84, Mesches has been “at it” a long time, his beginnings date to the waning days of that period in American art history when many modern artists took it for granted that their medium was a form of public address and a vessel for public passions. Back in the day, such an attitude usually reflected Left-leaning political views and those who held them frequently used the wall as a visual amplifier to express their convictions and proclaim their causes. Mesches still speaks in the visual equivalent of an oratorical voice – boldness and fervency are the hallmarks of his imagery - although he sometimes modulates to a no less vivid stage whisper. But where he and others once used that voice to articulate unequivocal positions on the issues of the moment framed by equally direct scenarios and symbols of social good and evil, presently it bespeaks compound ambiguities whose message is an ominous confusion and whose sheer enormity all but overwhelms the viewer, just as the city in the largest, mural-formatted image of this exhibition seems to choke everything with the field of vision, indeed to choke on itself.
“Apocalypse Then” meant emblems of reaction on the march against the forces of progress – if you look attentively at the paintings still found above the service windows of post offices across this country, or in the lobbies of federal, state and municipal buildings of every description from schools to low-income housing you can still see them marching or watch the counter-mobilization of a confident citizenry in defense of democracy. However, “Apocalypse Now” dissolves that old trade unionist “which side are you on?” dichotomy, resulting clear statements of a murkier realities where confidence has been lost, progress has boomeranged on progressives (and everybody else) and reaction fined tuned to the everyday attrition of civil liberties and shared hopes has become the “New World Order.” In this context deliberate anachronism has become the poetic language of both those who celebrate the collapse of Utopian modernism in their quest to enshrine conservative ideals and of those who search the wreckage for signs of life and tools for rebuilding a place where the imagination can be free despite the heavy menace of a disastrous past and a compromised future.
Mesches belongs to the second group. Generally dark, moody and reminiscent of the shores where Charon is as likely to pull up his boat as a Gulf Coast bait fisherman lost in the swamps, or so garish and eventful that looking at them is like playing in traffic on the main drag of a contemporary Hades – Mesches is not among contemporary art’s Dante-quoters but he has toured the Inferno on his own – the artist’s enigmatic landscapes, cityscapes and nowhere-on-this-planet-scapes are a snappy hybrid of vintage social realism, “Day of the Locust” burn-the-set backdrop painting and de Chiricoesque 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.
The fact that Mesches worked in the movie industry during the 1940s and 1950s, soaking up Hollywood magic while learning Hollywood tricks of the trade and studying its backstage tawdriness, makes all of this make sense. Up to the point that his own conjuring takes effect and we, the viewers, suspend disbelief in the theatres of his mind. Well, to be honest, we can never really believe what we see and in this respect it is noteworthy that the artist abstains from the sort of “trompe l’oeil” mannerisms that vulgar American surrealism often favored and leading directors such as Alfred Hitchcock indulged in to a fault. So at this point let’s stop to restate that it is the intentionally self-betraying anomalies of de Chirico rather than the “Oh My God! Can this be real illusionism?” of Dali that Mesches’s paintings recall. To which precedent add a dash of Brechtian Fourth Wall breaking anti-naturalism and well contrived irresolution, remembering as we do that the old Left may be dead but its formerly dissenting spirit partially survives in current deconstructive practices for which the ever-contrary Brecht - stripped of his abject Stalinism – is, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the improbable yet profoundly influential model.
A thing of resplendently eclectic atmospheric motion picture palaces, Mesches’s theatre of the absurd remains implicitly if not explicitly cinematic, throughout. To that extent his paintings are like the storyboards of an independent film-maker who is too impatient with to work with temperamental actors or wait for funding from interfering money-men when he can get it all down on his own in quivering contour and vibrant color with only a brush in hand and a suite of canvases awaiting its discursive touch. Or think of them as the hand made film stills from the silent screen era, except, of course, that many of the happenings portrayed are all too recognizably of our own era. And replete as they are with dated decors, costumes and other details, the fact that he calls them “Coming Attractions” when so many suggest a last night on earth only serves to underscore that the doomsday vision they all evoke transcend particular cultural references even as it also signals that as a group the paintings owe more to the B-movie horrors than to the edifying heroism that was traditionally subject of history painting.
The nerve-wracking truth, Mesches seems to be saying, is that we are in a bad way and things are bound to get worse. He is able to say it with the grinning irony of an old man who has come to terms with the knowledge that no matter what comes next for the rest of us his own fate is soon to be sealed. But the anger of his satire shows that he is no Nirvana-bound Buddha, nor, on the evidence of his recent work, does he display any wish to be one. (Bodistavas about to let go their corporeality do not dream-up Penthouse-grade orgies to fill Tiepolo-like ceilings as Mesches has just done; here the presiding bald headed master is the ancient death-haunted satyr Picasso, and, but for the sympathetic vibrations between his unrepentantly horny late work and that of Mesches, Golub, Guston and de Kooning how remote that formerly ubiquitous figure has become.) Although still in the making, sooner or latter Mesches’s legacy will be to have cranked up every dimension of his art to its maximum capacity to capture the chaos, gaudiness, fears and frustrations of a world barely shy of the point at which redemption becomes wholly inconceivable – and do so with the saving grace of vulgar energy in extremis. “Do not go gently into that good night/But rage, rage against the dying of the light” Dylan Thomas admonished his dying subject and his mortal readers in soothingly melodious tones of an anti-elegiac poem. With bells, whistles and crashing waves of sound from a Wurlitzer organ ringing in our ears as the Baroque chandeliers and sconces dim in his anti-modern monuments to the phantasmagoria of modern civilization on the brink, Mesches reminds us that quiet surrender never really was nor ever will be an option for him.
–Robert Storr - 2007