From Ike to Obama: Arnold Mesches Exhibit at Frost Spans Generations

Subversive art on display at Frost.
Arnold Mesches was tailed by the Feds during the Hoover years for what they considered to be subversive paintings casting President Eisenhower's America in a corrosive light. When the painter obtained his FBI file in 1999 under the Freedom of Information Act, it contained close to 800 pages that further fueled Mesches' activism and imagery. His haunting compositions are currently on view in "Florida Artists Series: Selections from Anomie 1492-2006," at the Frost Museum of Art. His work mines social and historical issues impacting contemporary society. And recently we got to mine his mind for clues on what makes this prolific artist keep going at 87. Continue to the jump for our Q&A.

New Times: Can you tell us what inspired the Anomie series on view at the Frost?

Arnold Mesches: I was reading Kim Levin's essay, "The Agony and the

Anomie." The dictionary definition of Anomie is "the moral decay of

society," a sentiment that exemplified my take on the history of my

years.  Days later my wife and I almost stumbled on some figurines while

walking on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach: a small Aunt Jemima, a

headless Christ and an also beheaded Roman centurion, which I promptly

photographed.  Months later, after many trial sketches and wanderings,

they were juxtaposed with religious figures, and a Caribbean landscape

from Columbus' journeys. I, very tentatively, thought that I might have

opened a way for me to talk about history. Only after a few more

paintings did I have an inkling that I was possibly into "the moral

decay of society," from my perspective.  Fifteen of the 49 paintings of

this series are being shown at the Frost Museum thru Art Basel.  

How do you fold such disparate elements together to create what often appears to be such seamless narrative imagery?

By combining unlikely juxtapositions, both in painting techniques and

disparate imagery, I try to create the sense of utter instability and

sheer insanity that I feel has so often permeated my years.  Instead of,

as in my salad years, veering toward the overt, I have, for some years

now, found myself depicting our time with a sense of unreality bordering

on the absurd.  My images come from my knowledge of art, the daily

press, torn magazine pages, my camera and sketchpad, mythology, Coney

Island, all useful metaphors for the blatant idiocy of our convoluted

shenanigans and wasteful bloodletting.  Absurdity asks the viewer to

question, not only what they are seeing and feeling but, more

importantly, why they are questioning their awakened uneasiness. 

Hopefully, the dichotomy is only enhanced when one is seduced by the

richness of the painting's surface and the enticing vividness of color;

beauty as an art language to complement the darkness and the humor. 

This is the core of my recent work.

The FBI opened a file on you in 1945 and it grew close to 800 pages of

information by the time Hoover died in 1972. What did you discover in

the file when you obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act in

1999 and how did the files appear in or influence your work later on?

I discovered that several neighbors, students, models, friends, lovers

and colleagues were reporting my every activity, political or personal,

in weekly reports (for which they were well paid) to the FBI.  While I

knew those many years but, what I didn't know was the extent of their

nonsense:  Not only did they clock my marching for peace ("a Communist

line"), but they even recorded the birth and weight of my children along

with the hospital they were born in.  When I received the pages I

converted them into THE FBI FILES, a 57 piece collage and painting

exhibition of the pages as contemporary illuminated manuscripts.

Is it true one of your students hid a tiny camera in his necktie to film

you lecturing in class? Can you tell us about the political environment

at the time?

The "student" was an FBI agent posing as an art student in my drawing

class.  I hope he learned something about drawing while suffocating in a

tightly fastened shirt and tie on that blistering hot LA evening.  This

was at the height of McCarthyism, right after the demolition of the

studio unions, followed by the Hollywood Blacklist, the House

un-American Activities Committee hearings, the jailing of the Hollywood

Ten, etc, etc, etc.  It may well have been America's darkest hour.  

Has your subject matter always veered toward criticism of the establishment?

The world is too complex to be so limited.  I painted over 200 portraits

in 6 1/2 years, sunsets on a Caribbean Island called, Culebra, off of

Puerto Rico, where we spent winters, many other things that bespeak of

the fullness and beauty of the landscape and our beautiful, but

endangered, planet.  But, no matter what I paint, I think the fury and

passion is always apparent in the slashing calligraphy and urgent

gesture.  I am who I am and it will come thru with each stroke and every

line.  Blocking it is the end.

You are going to have two shows up in South Florida during Art Basel.

What are you going to exhibit at the Dorsch Gallery next month?

I shall be showing 36 paintings from two series, Weather Patterns" and

"Paint" at the Brook Dorsch Gallery in Wynwood, both executed in the

past 2 or three years.  In "Paint" I am simply decrying the avante garde

mantra that "painting is dead."  By referencing a few past greats,

overlapped by this painter's work habits and methods, I hope to bring

renewed life to a very much alive history. That word again. Painting is

dead; long live painting.  Some friends and colleagues have said that

the smaller group of paintings, "Weather Patterns," brings to bear the

precariousness of the fledgling Obama administration's attempted

resurrection from the Bush years.  I know they are about precariousness

but, while they may have something to do with the present political

arena, I know that they have much to do with the overall frightening

picture, climate change, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the

constant, daily struggle of chance.

Many younger artists steer clear of tackling political issues in their

work these days. Do you consider yourself as much an activist as a


I am an artist who remains aware of the world.  There are many young

artists who are, in untold ways, tackling political issues.  Perhaps not

enough. But, one thing I have tried to do in my own work is to make art

the dominant force, not overt politics as such.  The world is much too

complex to stay in the realm of propaganda.  Art must be the dominant

factor, always. And, then, it will have meaning.

You are in your eighties and still teach and paint. How often do you make it to the studio these days?

I am 87. The Frost and Dorsch shows will be my 130th and 131st solo

exhibitions.  I still have much to say before they shovel dirt in my

face; I am in the studio 24-7, embarking, hopefully, on a new series,

that may or may not come to fruition.  If not, hopefully, there will be

others.   I teach Graduate Seminar at the University of Florida in

Gainesville where I was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Art.

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