During the early '90s, Kevin Arrow spent a year in the Himalayas helping Bhutanese artisans spruce up the shrine rooms of ancient Buddhist monasteries. Living in one of the remotest regions of the world, Arrow often went weeks without seeing another Westerner.
"I have always been fascinated with that culture," Arrow says. "I would help them prepare wall surfaces and clean brushes. It was pretty basic stuff. But the shrine rooms we were working in were just incredible and each of them was devoted to a different deity much like you would find, say, in the Catholic Church with a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi."
The intensity of the experience is evident in "Burning Bright," Arrow's solo show at the Farside Gallery in Westchester featuring a selection of paintings, drawings, projected media, and rummaged items that represent the artist's multi-pronged approach to making work.
In an engaging way, Arrow's art fuses his interest in the ephemeral object, fading technology, spirituality, music, humor, and the random nature of the universe.
Several of the paintings on exhibit take the form of Buddhist mandalas and make direct references to tigers, the Chinese emblem for the year of Arrow's birth. The exhibition's title also offers a nod to William Blake's 1794 poem, "The Tyger," informs the 46-year-old artist. "I was born in the year of the tiger, and it's become a symbol of life's power for me," he says.
"I am also interested in Jung's idea of the collective unconscious and the mandala as a symbol for centering focus. The notion of an artwork as a talisman appeals to me also, as do the Pennsylvania Dutch hex symbols painted on barns for good luck."
If it all sounds a bit esoteric, it's not. Arrow is definitely not one of those new-age space cadets. Rather, he approaches his ever-expanding bank of imagery with a honed eye, allowing spectators to discover their own poetry in them.
At the entrance to the gallery, one of his mandala paintings depicts a tiger pouncing on an elk in each of the four corners of the work. Mandalas have been employed by various spiritual traditions as an aid for meditation and trance induction.
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung saw mandalas as "a representation of the unconscious self" and believed they enabled him to identify emotional disorders and work toward wholeness in personality.
On the floor, directly across from the colorful, geometrically intricate painting, is a piece called Google Consciousness, which works almost like a hiccupping electronic version of a mandala.
Projected onto four screens are hundreds of 35mm slides randomly sequenced to form unpredictable connections in the mind's eye. Arrow has enhanced the unexpected nature of the work by layering in radio transmissions he copied from a 2002 visit to Havana that features music and snippets from Cuban talk shows. Arrow says the work is about finding order in chaos.
He created the installation using vintage projection machines he purchased at thrift shops, flea markets, and garage sales. As the quaint contraption whirs and clicks, incongruous imagery blurs across the screens before disappearing to repeat the spin cycle again.
"To me, the piece is what Google might have looked like before the Internet — just images connected by a random thread, sort of like a stream of consciousness."
Arrow is also interested in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese symbol system used to identify order in random events, and for years has been collecting 35mm slides, amassing a trove of 20,000 of them.
"Not only do they represent a technology that's becoming obsolete since everything is digital now, but they were once important to the people that made them," Arrow says. "Whether it's an image of a birthday party or a faded sunset, good or bad, they are still important and have meaning."
Another projection piece, titled I Love My Mamma Check In, is located in a backroom. An attached boombox fills the space with a recording of a pirate radio broadcast by local DJ Chico the Leo, who had listeners phoning in shout-outs to their moms.
On a pair of old-fangled screens, arranged on the floor, innocuous images duel with each other, snaring the peepers. A liquor store façade, a convent, a girl clutching marigolds, race cars, a Star of David, a Mayflower moving van on a desert road, a boy with a beach ball, and a lively wedding ceremony make the noggin reel. Nearby, a projection piece tucked in a corner depicts a nurse with rays shooting from her head as if she's overwhelmed by the visual and aural cacophony whirling next to her.
On an adjacent wall, the image of a tiger mauling an elk reappears in a modest acrylic-on-wood painting with the words God is merciful scrawled above the scene. Beneath the painting, an educational poster Arrow purchased for a nickel in India depicts two babies giving each other flu vaccines. Next to these startling images are several cardboard announcements for lurid Spanish novels, including one depicting a buxom brunette with the caption "Submerging herself in his lips was the same as drowning in a seething cauldron."
Some visitors will consider a suite of drawings isolated in another room among Arrow's most compelling works. The exquisite ink-on-vellum pieces — inspired by cartoons, pop culture, music, clip art, and advertising — offer a quixotic window into the artist's wildly fertile imagination.
From dancing Kachina figures to crowned skulls, wristwatches, unicorns, koala bears, Arabic text, Lucky Strike cigarettes, a turtle, a jester, and even Bob Dylan and a howling Allen Ginsberg, Arrow's jumbled imagery evokes the collective unconscious of his generation.
"I see the drawings as what someone might capture as they were beginning to fall asleep," the artist says. At Farside, Arrow will unexpectedly burrow into your psyche and give you plenty to dream about.