by Maria Porges
Lately, I’ve come to believe that Charles Dickens could have been talking about 2018 when he wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”During our own worst of times, many are searching urgently for ways to express fear, anger or sadness about everything from environmental degradation to the erosion of democratic government. With elegiac grace, painter Chester Arnold has been exploring that dark sociopolitical landscape for decades.
In his most recent work, we find ourselves in a liminal zone in which domino–like chains of events and decisions push us ever closer to a new Dark Age of xenophobia, isolation and generalized failure. Arnold has been investigating dystopian landscapes, real and imagined, for virtually his entire career. Skillfully painted, his panoramic pictures draw the viewer in with mesmerizing detail to deliver a variety of uncomfortable messages. There have been wintry scenes of human disaster reminiscent of Brueghel; forests and despoiled waterways; vistas strewn with trash; prison yards, ruins and enormous pit mines— in short, evocations of loss too advanced to ameliorate. Still, the message conveyed often seems to be that, with effort, we might be able to stop ourselves from destroying whatever traces of beauty or civility remain. Or not.
In Borderline, his current show at Catharine Clark, Arnold focuses on the greatest monument to folly of our time: the wall at the border between the US and Mexico, and all that building it represents. From the start of the exhibition, it’s immediately clear that the paintings on view are intended as a preview of a future time—perhaps decades from now, perhaps much sooner—when the wall has fallen into a state of decay. The three canvases in the gallery’s front room, for instance, all show a hole through its massive bulk, through which can be seen a desert landscape filled with scrub, cactus and distant violet mountains under a turquoise sky. As we peer through the jagged “window” pictured in Beyond This, the largest of the three (made at varying sizes, like the beds and bowls Goldilocks encountered in the three bears’ house) we see an adult and child scurrying up a steep hillside. They appear to be fleeing south, not north.
Leaving Arizona suggests this even more strongly. An overweight orange-haired man clad in a red polo shirt, clutching a burger and shake, sits in a trash pile near the wall’s base: a portrait of our current president some years hence, lingering near the ruins of what he built. He pays no attention to a jerry-rigged ladder that leans against the crumbling barrier or the man at the top who is on the verge of escape, through a break in the crude fence tacked along the concrete’s upper edge. Fast food trash in other paintings suggests that the orange-haired man has visited those spots as well—or that garbage of this sort is ubiquitous in these remote locations. The Dotage of 45 offers an alternative post-presidential revenge fantasy. In this exquisite, tiny picture of a prison yard, Trump is seen spending his sunset years in an orange jumpsuit, serving time for crimes against, well, just about everyone and everything.
In the monumental Mending Wall, a truck pumps cement as workers ferry buckets and trays of it up to the barrier’s ragged top edge, out of which rusty rebar protrudes like odd desert plants. On the other side, a fire burns across the dry landscape—a reminder of one of the many consequences of global warming. Such “natural” disasters make appearances in two paintings of volcanoes erupting and in one intensely apocalyptic scene of lightning igniting fires across a city during a nighttime storm. The latter invokes memories of the terrible fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties that burned last fall, during which Arnold was forced to evacuate.
The bleakness of this show is as gut-wrenching as in any suite of paintings that the artist has previously executed. Yet there’s humor, too. And there is always hope. In Crowdsource, tens of thousands or protesters completely fill a vast public space carrying banners that say "TRUTH."
In the end, however, what we are meant to understand is that hope alone is sometimes not enough. Unless we act, it is all too possible that we will end up like the lone tagger in a knit cap and puffy jacket in Borderline, the painting that gives this show its name, spraying the word RESIST in stylized letters on stained concrete near the tattered remains of a wheat-pasted Trump banner. A sign saying “regime change in 2018” lies on the ground.
In the back room, there’s a tiny portrait of a single brick. Gifted to Arnold by a friend, the object on which the painting is based was made in New Orleans by a slave in 1840. In the corner of the painting, in Arnold’s distinctive printing are the words: “free at last,” taken from Martin Luther King’s 1963 I Have a Dream speech. The brick had to become a ruin, he seems to be saying, to finally be released. Hopefully, the same will not be true of all we know and hold dear.
A respite can be found in Andy Diaz Hope and Laurel Roth Hope’s installation The Woulds, in the gallery’s media room. A previous iteration of this complex multimedia piece was included in a recent show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Loosely inspired by a folk tale about souls residing in trees, The Woulds offers an immersive experience of shifting, prismatic light and color that slips across the walls and ceiling, emanating from stylized hand carved tree forms populated by spirit-like porcelain birds. (Look closely and you will discover that some have an
extra head or two pairs of wings). Sitting down on one of the benches and waiting until your eyes adjust, you may begin to breathe more slowly, listening to the birds and watching the fractured light on the ceiling, like constellations you never knew existed. Still, this piece is an exhortation, too: The title is a play on words worth considering. Not coulds or shoulds, but woulds.
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Chester Arnold: “Borderline” and Andy Diaz Hope and Laurel Roth Hope’s “The Woulds” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through May 5, 2018.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.