Van Arno, When the Nest’s Beset by Pests, the Babysitters Swift Undress (2009
oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches). Courtesy of Corey Helford Gallery
Van Arno: A Change of Skin
Corey Helford Gallery
Culver City, CA
October 3 through 24, 2009
As co-author of The Uber-Mannerist Work of Van Arno, completed several years ago (but printing now), I was, upon encountering the artist’s most recent work, in a unique position to perform close formal comparisons, and detailed inspections of what must have been incremental shifts. The differences present in this exhibition are both subtle and remarkable. Demonstrating new looseness, confidence, and maturity, the brushwork is as compelling an aspect of this artistic evolution as the changing subject matter.
In the introductory remarks to the aforementioned book, Arno writes that his work privileges risk-taking and boundary-pushing in the service of ideas, reflecting a belief that more is always better (more surreal, more pigmented, more mannerist, more politically charged, more sexualized, etc.) This creed extends to issues of content, form, brushwork, narrative, and meaning, and all this, of course, is about maintaining control. That’s what Mannerism is: the exertion of control over every aspect of composition susceptible to the artist’s intention, and highlighting every step of his deliberations. For an artist like Van Arno whose work has long contended with the engineering and transference of identity through the body, an artistic lineage that favors the manipulation of anatomy as an expressive tool is a perfect fit—and hijacking the subjects of classicism follows naturally from this.
In contrast, the worlds he depicts now are less mythological. No longer entirely those of gods and monsters, they begin to resemble our own modern-era experiences. On the whole, the work feels softer. But that only makes it more subversive. Being Van Arno, he does not, nor will he likely ever, fully abandon the ancient cosmologies, nor his delight in mashing them together with the present to generate his own particular allegories. Myth, legend, folklore, popular culture, muscle-bound nudes—all of this core material remains. But the choices are less heavy-handed, the implied meanings more ambiguous, the palette more subdued, the line-work more organic (though no more naturalistic), and, above all things, the brushwork looser. This is a sign of confidence and maturity insomuch as an artist evolves and becomes more willing to relinquish ultimate control.
In short, the new work is more comfortable in its own, pun intended, skin. As he experiments with setting, picture plane expansion, and accessible iconography it’s like Van Arno no longer feels he has to prove anything. He is the personification of that oft-used, but apt, metaphor comparing all creative talents to that of jazz greats: You have to master the universe of technique before you can break the rules—and make it all look easy.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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