Artist Who Was Under FBI Surveillance for Many Years Shows at Bushwick's ‘Life on Mars’ Gallery
At the age of 92, artist Arnold Mesches does not shy away from stirring emotions such as horror, violence or tenderness through his art. His work is currently exhibited in a solo exhibition titled “75 Years Of Works On Paper” at Life on Mars gallery (56 Bogart St, East Williamsburg) though December 20, which gives us plenty of time to explore the lifetime of work of this certainly extraordinary man.
Even though Arnold Mesches is considered by many a painters’ painter, as writer Jill Ciment, his wife of 43 years puts it, if you strip the color off his canvases, “what you are left with is line.” The importance of drawing as a thought process, finished artwork and commentary on important issues of the moment is evident in Mesches’ inspiring drawing exhibition at Life on Mars. Mesches’ gutsy yet sensitive lines bring to life a wide array of narratives ranging from his autobiography to politics and the circus of life.
Graphic and abstracted depictions of war horrors recur in his imagery from 1958 on. Sometimes he refers to a specific war, such as WWII, but mostly his war images depict the total sum of the absurdity, cruelty and suffering inherent in all wars.
In “Metamorphoses,” a large bird and a man lying on the ground intertwine and transform into a double-headed creature, dead and yet painfully alive. Mesches says that in this drawing he responded to the holocaust, adding that only later he discovered how the concentration camps were filled with carrion birds. Over 40 years later, “Toy Soldiers” depicts silhouettes of grouped toy soldiers in swirling linear action, evoking a sense of movement that goes nowhere. Their multitude and sheer energy aggrandize their diminutive scale into an absurd but real menace.
Mesches keeps probing our Zeitgeist. “Double Vision,” a recent pen-and-ink drawing, depicts what appears to be a crowded poor neighborhood peppered with opulent chandeliers, suggesting notions of gentrification. “Next in Line” groups 129 cutout faces into an anonymous crowd, hinting that all of us can be next in line for surveillance.
Mesches should know, shortly after he completed a series related to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s execution for treason at the height of the Cold War, an FBI informer guided the FBI to the artists’ studio and took over 200 works. From this first major series only “The Kiss” survived. The FBI continued to watch him till 1972 and only in 2001 the artist gained access to seven hundred sixty FBI files, which eventually became source material for his renowned FBI Files series.
This engaging exhibition gives us only a glimpse into Mesches’ immensely prolific graphic work. Executed with a keen eye, uncanny intuition and lines that hit our nervous system like raw electric wires; Mesches’ rigorous drawings continue to convey bold visual commentaries on the important issues of the moment with fresh urgency.
Arnold Mesches: "75 Years of Works on Paper" at Life on Mars, 56 Bogart St, East Williamsburg is open through December 20. Gallery hours: Thursday to Sunday, 1–6PM and by appointment.