During the Great Depression, Arnold Mesches once spent three hours wheedling his old man for a nickel to buy a Popsicle at the soda fountain newsstand across the street from his home in Buffalo, New York.
"I didn't know that's what a beer cost him back then and that he also got a free sandwich along with it, and it would be his lunch the next day. No wonder he didn't want to give it up," the artist laughs.
The 87-year-old painter says his father was out of work and selling old gold for his family to get by. The incident inspired one of his paintings 50 years later that, he says, is now in the collection of Matthew Weiner, creator of the Mad Men TV series. "It's a painting that has a gold chain in it," Mesches says, adding that actor Gene Hackman also owns some of his work.
"Selections From Anomie 1492-2006": Through December 5 at the Frost Art Museum, 10975 SW 17th St., Miami; 305-348-2890; thefrost.fiu.edu. Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
"Before I became a painter, I wanted to become an advertising designer, so I thought I had to hoard images. I'm still a terror at the doctor's office to this day," he says, referring to ripping pictures from waiting-room magazines. "I used to cut out images from newspapers like the Buffalo Evening News and the Courier Express. The papers cost only two cents then."
Mesches kept many of the clippings he snagged from old-school publications such as the Saturday Evening Post and sundry dime-store pulp rags that still crop up in his paintings more than 75 years later. Their inspiration can be seen in his searing imagery on view at the Frost Art Museum, where the artist refracts history through a corrosive, bone-crunching lens.
"Selections From Anomie 1492-2006" features 15 of the artist's large-format canvases, which tear the scabs off ancient and recent dreams of empire, world wars, political skullduggery, and contemporary society in the grips of moral decay. He references everything from the discovery of America, the Cold War, and the first Gulf War to witchcraft in the White House.
Mesches combines surreal juxtapositions of disparate symbols, characters, and political and historical figures in dark, brooding landscapes that are often operatic and Grand Guignol. His stunning arsenal of imagery is as brutally atmospheric as an Alejandro Jodorowsky nightmare.
He typically makes drawings of the images he finds and later creates paintings based on the drawings to further remove the work from the original source. "I do it to make these images distinctly mine," Mesches says.
Anomie 1980: Nancy Reagan's Dream, a painting roughly the size of a garage door, reads like a downward-spiraling autopsy of the former first lady's aspirations to govern the nation by supernatural force. While residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with her doddering husband, Nancy Reagan often employed celebrity soothsayer Joan Quigley to provide spiritual advice.
"She wanted to become queen, and the country was being run by an astrologer," Mesches says. "I spent a lot of time researching astrological charts and used an old photo of Queen Elizabeth's coronation that I had saved in 1953 for the piece."
The artist depicts Reagan's ambitious revelries by adding sea monsters, mythological beings, the Statue of Liberty, a cruise ship, and even a naked fusilier to the kooky astrological symbols swimming in a Chagallesque swirl above the recently minted monarch's head. The quivering confection is rendered in squid-ink and bar-fight-bruise blues as well as chalky, meringue-white hues.
Another work that corrals Republicans into a steel-cage smack-down is Anomie 1995: Under the Tent, in which a gasbag Southern minister works up an unseen crowd in front of a blazing, stale-beer-yellow cross while a Boy Scout offers a patriotic salute. The lurid image brings to mind references ranging from defrocked conservative preachers and political sex scandals to the current Tea Party revolts.
"It's about the Republican Revolution of 1994 and Newt Gingrich," Mesches explains. "These works, which I painted during the '90s, almost seem prophetic now. The same thing is happening to Obama this current election cycle as happened to Clinton back then."
The artist — who was investigated by the FBI during the Hoover years and later obtained the agency's files to use in his work — has been an activist all of his life. But Mesches says he shies away from stepping into the quagmire of propaganda, instead mentioning the political realities of the times in hopes viewers will raise their own questions when they encounter his art.
"These paintings are all about ideas and how I have experienced the world and my life," he says. "I want to be provocative rather than overt, instead of hitting people on the head."
Other images include the last Russian tsar's hemophiliac son in a wheelchair before the marble busts of the Roman emperors; the fall of the Soviet Union; the 1928 stock market crash; Hitler's blitzkrieg on Europe; and the birth of the CIA.
These powerful works convey how man's technological advances of the past hundred years have far outpaced our ethical progress and propelled the world into an age of uncertainty.
Two paintings that reference the original Gulf War and the artist's fears that the conflict would ignite another global nightmare are Anomie 1991: True Blue and Anomie 1992: Landscape Painting.
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In the first, Mesches places victorious U.S. troops marching down Broadway in a ticker-tape parade under a Greek chorus of crowing clowns and an image of Billy the Kid.
"He was an outlaw," Mesches says, comparing the desperado to the politicians who declared war. "It was nutty to get us into the Gulf War the first time, and look where that has led. It's even nuttier for us to be over there now."
In the second painting, Mesches includes the image of a cigar-store Indian he cut out of a magazine while in his early teens, during more innocent times.
It offers a view of the world in garish flames, as if seen through the stinging patina of dejection in busted, bloodshot eyes.