Friction & Gravity

The Evidence of Chester Arnold’s life.

Story Gretchen Giles
Photos Steven Krause

A pile of homemade protest signs rests in a tidy pile just inside the front door of the vintage downtown Sonoma home that painter Chester Arnold shares with his wife, Frances-Ann. There are extra signs, more than the Arnolds can use, ready for guests or perhaps the couples’ own grown daughters to hoist, stacked at the ready should something occur that calls for a rush to the streets in instant resistance.

Arnold has been documenting his resistance since at least the first Bush administration, channeling the confusion and grief caused by an unwinnable Middle Eastern war and an unfathomable president into mass protest portraits and bleak imaginings of the American flag.

If only we knew how good we had it back then. This year, Arnold finds himself painting volcanoes spewing fire and smoke, baldly titling one “Political Landscape.” You can bet those signs by the door are being used.

But outrage is normal if you’re paying attention and, for more than 30 years, Arnold has been paying very close attention indeed. Represented by the Catherine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, Arnold, 65, is an established artist with a rich reputation who is known for the creepily gorgeous attention he has slathered on garbage heaps, sawed tree limbs, forlorn car tires, literary detritus, wasteland gutters and other overlooked piles of endless human attrition and waste.

The images sound alarming; they look beautiful. Perhaps best known for the “Accumulation” series that depicts the glorious and fetid, Arnold’s oeuvre has found a new attention in Evidence, a monograph on his work just published by Kelly’s Cove Press, an imprint founded by Arnold’s close friend, the writer and critic Bart Schneider.

The two have collaborated on most of Kelly Cove’s output, including three books examining the drawings, abstractions and still lifes of the great painter Richard Diebenkorn, a one-time Healdsburg resident. In addition to Diebenkorn and Arnold, Kelly’s Cove has highlighted the mid-career works on paper of East Bay artist Squeak Carnwath and redone classic texts from Ambrose Bierce and Jack London.

Evidence sidesteps the “Accumulation” paintings in favor of a different trove of Arnold’s work, culled from a collaborative editing process between the two men and the ongoing conversation they’ve cultivated during their near-decade-long friendship.

“There are thematic elements from many time periods because certain things don’t go away, they just come back again and again,” Arnold explains, seated at his comfortable dining room table, still wearing the splattered apron he uses to protect his clothes in the studio.

“There are many subjects that I worked with when I was quite young, and I didn’t really know how to paint them because I didn’t have the skills to paint them and then all of a sudden, it seemed that I did.”

People are tough to paint; so is water. And while there aren’t many people in Evidence, there’s plenty of water—and plenty of, well, evidence of people in water. Oil barrels rest in rivers and lakes, boards are carelessly tossed to bridge rain-swollen streams; no one can be bothered, it seems, to construct a permanent way to cross water.

Evidence also finds Arnold’s keen eye drawn to explicating the personal history of Henry John King, a relative who took up gold mining in the 1920s—40 years too late; the “Unnatural History” of the natural world; and topics as various as hermits, earthquakes, the bombing of Dresden, ornate treescapes and the loneliness of the multitudes.

“Bart originally wanted to call the book ‘Earthquake Country,’” Arnold says, “because he saw that as being a wonderfully jarring title, but I didn’t want it. I was lobbying for the work that became the frontispiece, ‘Evidence,’ which was part of a group of work I was working with at the time. I looked at the word ‘evidence,’ and the theme of ‘evidence,’ and it had so many layers of meaning for me: the evidence of what I’m doing in the studio; the evidence of life on earth; the human drama—it all seemed to me to fit within that definition.”

Because Arnold’s work is so rich with detail, many of the plates in Evidence are connected with a detail page that shows the smaller world built within his larger canvas, much like the obsessive mini-narratives that Brueghel and Bosch worked into their paintings.

While the monograph provides a neat summation of Arnold’s mid-career concerns, it also forms a coda to his time in the classroom. An influential painting instructor at College of Marin for nearly 30 years, Arnold plans to retire in May of 2018. No longer will students understand the color green by studying Albrecht Durer’s 1503 painting “The Large Piece of Turf,” a shockingly modern composition that mostly features weeds—in green.

“The Durer piece is one of the seminal influences of my career for a couple of reasons,” says Arnold. “One, it is so beautifully done that it’s hard to make something better than that in terms of quality. I always thought that if I’m going to aim for something, I’m going to aim for that. He was doing it as a sketch for his paintings, but to us it’s become this incredible study from nature. I can’t think of any other document in Western paintings that precedes it.”

And so, each year, his beginning art students look to a 500-year-old painting that can’t be improved on to begin to learn how much there is to learn.

Raised and schooled in Germany before repatriating with his American family to the United States just around the time he was to begin high school, Arnold had no intention of teaching; he was just always going to be an artist. But then he went to graduate school and his gregarious well-spoken father passed away. He needed to earn more money than newspaper delivery paid (he did that for over 20 years), and he found himself learning how to speak in public, and being good at it—just like his dad.

“I’ve appreciated the opportunity to teach,” Arnold says. “It’s developed the left side of my brain, or at least a fluency between the two halves. In the beginning, I couldn’t paint and talk at the same time. Now I can do that; there’s been some neurological development there.”

He also realized that he had something to say.

“I use a lot parallels of other forms of communication to discuss painting, including literature and music and even conversation,” Arnold says. “If we look at painting as a form of visual conversation, it ends up not only becoming something that’s shared across cultures at specific times, but it also becomes something that’s shared person to person. It can be a conversation that’s not dogmatic—and that’s how I like to shape it, too.”

Words are an important part of Arnold’s art. He often writes poems on the backs of his canvases that are rarely seen. A collection gathered under the chapter title, “Fate of the Written Word,” features an uncharacteristically minimalist series of paintings depicting letters and pages, books and sheaths, all of which bear writing upon them, most of it impossible to decipher.

Arnold free-writes on these pictures, painting over the ones whose language emerges too labored, but doesn’t intend for anyone to actually read the canvases, not even the one temptingly titled “The Chronicle of the End of Art.”

“I don’t, because I don’t feel like it’s me writing it,” he explains. “It’s a celebration of calligraphy and the handwritten note—maybe because I see less handwriting in younger people.”

He laughs self-deprecatingly. “I’ve gone beyond being an old fart,” he moans. “I’m Stone Age. But humankind has been using their hands to make marks that have meaning since the beginning of time. I’m a creature from the age of gravity and friction, and gravity and friction are an enormous part of what brings us to life, at least to me. To see the movement of the hand is quite exciting.”

The recent book serves as a calling card in part for Arnold’s artistic future. He’s hoping it will give museum curators and gallerists a sense of the kind of exhibitions he could install in their rooms. And with the glorious large raft of time that his upcoming teaching retirement will provide, he plans to be quite prolific. He reckons he’s got at least another good 30 years. And there’s so much to do.

“The magic of how paint summons reality in the mind is part of the joy of playing in the sandbox,” he says.

“I still feel just as excited when things are going well and something appears unexpectedly, and it makes me feel—well—it makes me feel like I want to live to be 1,000 years old. Really.”

Chester Arnold will discuss his painting and Evidence at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art on Saturday, September 30. See SVMA.org for details. For more of his art, go to chesterarnold.com.

 

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