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Robert Arneson @ Brian Gross

Front view: Guardians of the Secret II, 1989-90
 
by David M. Roth
 
It’s hard to think of two artists more unalike than Jackson Pollock and Robert Arneson.  Pollock, the legendary action painter, reveled in splattering his inner life across his canvas.  Arneson, the preeminent Funk artist of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, mocked the seriousness of that enterprise in mordant ceramic sculptures that concealed as much pain as they revealed.  Yet there’s evidence of a genuine affinity between these two ideological opposites. 
 
It comes in the form of a seven-by-10-by-two-foot Arneson sculpture that faithfully re-creates Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret, a pre-drip painting from 1943. It’s a totemic work that shifts obliquely between figuration and abstraction and lends itself easily to the kind of psychoanalytic examination that Pollock himself underwent only a few years earlier.  The painting loosely depicts what appears to be a dinner table around which sit animals and people – a scene said by the artist’s biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, to represent Pollock’s family.  “Smeared and squiggled, lathered and flicked in Pollock’s then-customary method,” is how Bill Berkson described the artist’s cryptic method.  The result, he says, was a “fitful tableaux” signaling “some dire psychic alarm.”  
 
That “alarm” may have been sounding inside Arneson’s head as well.  He translated the painting into a sculpture in 1990, two years before his death at age 62, having created in the preceding decade a total of 97 such works, the vast majority of them busts of Pollock’s head.   The centerpiece of this show, Guardians of the Secret II, may be the only instance in history in which a sculptor re-created a painting three dimensionally.  It shows Arneson at his peak, his penchant for self-satire and twisted caricature at its roaring best.  The front view, from across a room, bears a stunning likeness to the original.  Close-up, we see just how many
 
Rear view: Guardians of the Secret II
 
liberties Arneson took to resolve and to concretize the painting’s many ambiguities.  Chief among them are the identities of the animals and the genders of the two figures.  To each Arneson assigned his own Jungian interpretations (“Cupid,” “Psyche,” “Personages of Deliverance,” “Great Art Bird”).  They’re written in the artist’s hand on a wall-sized diagram that dominates an alcove of the gallery.  It served as a spatial and spirit guide for his fabrication of the sculpture’s 18 component parts, made of clay, wood, metal, rubber, canvas and plastic.   The most prominent elements are two life-sized figures, a group of animal figures arrayed horizontally at the top and a painted canvas unfurled below the animals.
 
But surprise: What appears on the surface to be a faithful homage is really a wunderkammer-cum-memorial to Arneson’s own life and impending mortality. This we learn by examining the backside of the piece, where Arneson, unencumbered by Pollock’s painting, took his greatest liberties, the biggest being a reliquary/coffin containing replicas of Pollock’s head, erect penis and a single boot.  Other fascinating details, visible from both

Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret, 1943

sides of the sculpture, include Arneson’s use of a garden hose to replicate the looping lines of the original, which, in the remake, became a kind of sexual/plumbing apparatus joining the two figures.  One, judging by the circular shape of the connection point, is clearly female, her genitals garnished by a Brillo-like substance to represent pubic hair.

However, it’s in the smaller, less visible art-historical references and embedded visual puns that Guardian’s meaning, as an apocalyptic self-memorial, resides. Take, for example, the upside-down head mounted on the shoulder of the female figure. It echoes the wounded animals in Picasso’s Guernica.  Then there’s the face of Munch’s The Scream resting on the shoulder of the male figure.  Buried at its base is a miniature bust of Arneson, one of many that depict him with his tongue hanging from the side of his face like a panting dog’s.  Arneson’s own cigar-chomping visage makes a cameo, too, recast as a leering demon of the sort Bosch painted.  Lest these allusions to mortality lack sufficient gravitas, Arneson retains Pollock’s mascot, the pointy-eared jackal at the center of the original composition. It’s the guardian of the dead in Egyptian lore and the element from which the piece takes its title.  
 
Additional keys to this complicated allegory can be found in three text tablets affixed to the male figure.  In one, Arneson disavows and affirms Abstraction Expressionism.  In another he speaks of his preference for painting with sticks, as Pollock and Native Americans did.  And in a third he writes of painting’s ability to communicate “the experience of our age.” 
 
Working Drawing for Arneson's Guardians of the Secret II, 1990
 
Other clues lay outside the exhibition. The most important are the frenzied gestural marks that so often populated Arneson’s drawings. Could it be that Arneson and Pollock are really two faces of the same coin, one laughing openly at humanity’s foibles, the other encoding them as secret messages?  In Guardians of the Secret II, Arneson reveals both men’s secrets with a clear emphasis on the territory they shared. 
 
Arneson called Guardians his “masterpiece,” and clearly it is. That he channeled his feelings about death through the “voice” of Pollock without subsuming his own is surely an act of genius: one genius nodding across time to another.
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Robert Arneson: “Guardians of the Secret II” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through May 7, 2016.
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