by Shana Beth Mason
His hands tremble only slightly as he whisks a brush over a thick, bulbous mound on the table. He shows me how red paint behaves when it comes into contact with new colors, a new surface. It seems to mutate and shift in an almost unnatural way; it absorbs the dark tones beneath it, but also makes the nearly blacknened underpaint shimmer (this effect allows his intensely steep voids to retain a glimmer of life). He leans in across the table, 'You see what happens there? Do you see how the red changes? You can touch it in a few seconds. You keep working it back and forth and the paint and surface respond together.' This is an excerpt of dialogue from Arnold Mesches, between him and myself at his studio.
Born in the Bronx in 1923, Mesches has maintained a formidable practice spanning (and exceeding) sixty years, having his works find their way into the permanent collections of The Whitney Museum, SFMOMA, The National Gallery, The Brooklyn Museum, The Israel Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to name a few. Mesches' most recent exhibition, A Life's Work, catalogued six decades of work ranging from his first painting in 1945 to a 2011-2012 series (entitled Shock and Awe). The Museum of Art + Design at Miami Dade-College's historic Freedom Tower in Miami played host to this mammoth achievement. After witnessing its dizzying scope, I drove roughly five and a half hours north to Gainesville (where Mesches has a studio in his lakeside home), close to the University of Florida campus where he and his wife, novelist Jill Ciment, are teachers.
Like the paintings in his retrospective, the works hung throughout the house have a disturbing, but quietly beautiful tremor that runs deep. Thread upon thread, each stroke of pigment introduces itself to another. Whatever I may have learned about color theory in grad school, clearly, was lost or confounded. His paintings are the executions of plans carefully made before a single bristle touches a canvas. Once he begins, he knows exactly which layer of color will overlap to create the final effect. There are shades of gold, grey, blue and black underneath. Of course, his work is hardly limited to acrylic on canvas. He leads me to a complex collage on the studio wall, lined with paper cutouts of white herons at the base. 'Everything is cut out by hand here. Every little line and curve.' This would seem to be an unimpressive claim to anyone else, but not for an artist approaching his ninety-first year. 'I think the herons, the gators, the swamp,' I point out, 'have found a way of bringing the whole composition to life.' He points at me, 'Now you're cookin', kid.' I'd been waiting for a hint of encouragement ever since, and it's something you'd actively seek out from him like like you would from a mentor or even a parent. His age notwithstanding, it's his breadth of experience and knowledge with the physical properties of paint, alone (even before its applied to a canvas) that compels you to earn his respect. You get the sense that once in his classroom, you are given no special treatment and no easy exits.
Back in the living room, a massive painting depicting a series of spectacular crystal chandeliers practically vibrates in the light of an overcast afternoon. 'You've talked before about how the chandeliers are markers of class disparity,' I say, 'but I can't help but relish the feeling of looking at them. They're sexy, luxurious.' He points towards the top of the painting, 'You see this? That's gold paint. You see how it allows the other light pinks and yellows to come through? I planned it out that way. It's beautiful, no doubt about it. Color is beautiful, it can be happy. But it says whatever you really want it to say.' I paused, trying to reconcile his notions of social prejudices set against haunted, oppressive open spaces and the obscene, gorgeous Baroque excesses. 'It's like you're suggesting that money, wealth, power basically produces an empty effect.' He shrugs. Again, no easy answers, no free compliments here. And that's the way it damned well should be.
Shana Beth Mason is a critic formerly based in Brooklyn now active in London, UK. Contributions include Art in America, ArtVoices Magazine, FlashArt International, InstallationMag (Los Angeles), Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Brooklyn Rail, The Miami Rail, San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ), and thisistomorrow.info (London).
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