Photo by Susan Einstein
From the beginning, Arnold Mesches knew that the FBI was watching him. “What I didn’t realize — until I got the 760 pages of the file [under the Freedom of Information Act] — was the extent to which they followed me. They not only had FBI agents, they paid and probably threatened some of my students, one or two of the models I had, neighbors — it was amazing. There were hundreds of people following or reporting on me over 26 years.” Now living in Florida, the 80-year-old Mesches spent half his life as a major figure in the L.A. art world. He also painted picket signs, marched for civil rights, signed petitions for nuclear disarmament, and protested against the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. So it wasn’t entirely a surprise that the McCarthy/Hoover Axis of Evil was keeping tabs on him from 1946 to 1972, but the degree and absurdity of the surveillance was something else. On the eve of his show, “The FBI Files,” at the Skirball Cultural Center, he spoke with me about his latest body of work and the revelation that a good percentage of his friends and colleagues from his L.A. years were spying on him for the government.
“Even though a lot of it was blacked out, there was enough left so you could read between the lines, look at your journal notes and say, ‘Oh boy, that’s so-and-so.’ There’s a guy that did a sketch of me that appeared in my FBI files. There’s a request to him to make a sketch because they needed to know what I looked like. And I know it was so-and-so, because I know his work.”
Every week, people who Mesches thought were trusted friends would file reports — not merely on his political activities, but on every mundane detail of his life, from the make of his cars to the names of the hospitals where his children were born, from his gig as a film-strip artist to the kinds of clothes he wore (“like a communist . . . rolled-up blue jeans with paint spatters”). After the initial shock wore off, he began to see the blacked-out pages’ potential as drawings.
“Why I got interested is that graphically they’re quite beautiful. The first big painting I did was toward the end of 2000, and then I started working on some smaller pieces. I realized they had to be intimate like the page itself.”
This particular blend of public and private journalism covers most of the 41 years Mesches spent in Los Angeles. Born in the Bronx, he moved here in 1943 at age 19 to attend Art Center on a scholarship (“and escape the weather”), beginning his dual career as a painter and teacher almost immediately. He taught first at the People’s Education Center, then subsequently at Otis, USC, Art Center and UCLA, as well as directing the legendary New School of Art from 1955 to 1958. He moved back East in 1984 after dozens of solo exhibitions, including museum surveys at Pasadena Art Museum in 1953, Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1981 and Barnsdall in 1983, and shows with commercial gallerists including Felix Landau, Paul Rivas, Jackie Anhalt, Jan Baum and Karl Bornstein. Since fleeing the state, he’s continued showing here — most recently with the well-received “Echoes: A Century Survey” at Otis’ Ben Maltz Gallery in 2002.
This weekend’s opening will be his 107th solo show, but he was just recently awarded a prize by the Art Critics of America as one of the most underknown living artists. That seems to be changing, partly due to the publicity surrounding the debut run of “The FBI Files” at PS 1 in New York. “It was a very exciting situation. They scheduled it for two months and extended it to four months, and the guard tells me that there were 500 people a day. It was amazingly well-received, and I got press all over the world. Everybody wanted to know about our Patriot Act, and wanted to know, ‘What kind of madness is going on in the United States? You guys are going crazy!’ I had to say, ‘Yes, I don’t disagree.’” Mesches manages a laugh.
The work itself is gorgeous and assured: The blacked-out texts of the re-copied FBI memos, like Dadaist chance compositions or (as the artist suggests) Franz Kline sketches, create powerful graphic jumping-off points for more than 50 of what Mesches envisions as contemporary illuminated manuscripts. Incorporating collaged pop imagery (scenes from B noir films and musicals, ceramic pigs and Aunt Jemimahs, Ferris wheels), news photos (Nixon, a Klansman holding a flag, etc.) and Mesches’ expressionistic paint interpretations of the same source materials (Khrushchev? A GI in Nam? A mainstream political convention? They’re realist but not too realist), the mixed-media works on paper have a picture-in-picture density. Bordering these layered cells of information (or lack thereof), and working its way through the interstices, is a constant stream of brightly contrasting pattern, often from as simple a source as a stencil made from a paper doily. This simulated filigree flattens the imagery into a pagelike design and sweetens the ominous content considerably. The resulting effect is an unsettling combination of delicate contemplation and agitprop urgency, of reflective intimacy and historical sweep.
History is one thing when it’s happening on the opposite side of a continent, and something else in your own back yard. The Skirball exhibition is something of a homecoming. “I’m curious about how it’s going to be received, since so much of this did happen in L.A.,” says Mesches. “I’m wondering if any of the people who are still alive and who knew me in those days are going to read this stuff and know exactly what went on. A lot of people were involved in the political scene in those days, and a lot of those people will be coming to the show. They’re all going to know and remember all of these incidents as I did when I read the files the first time.”
Is this going to be awkward? Has he ever confronted the people he’s been able to identify? “The truth of the matter is I don’t want to. I don’t want to know these people anymore. And a lot of them are dead. And who the hell needs it? It’s over with — it’s a long time ago. You go on. These people have to live with what they did. I did what I felt was necessary in life.”
In spite of its historical timeliness, narrative complexity and physical beauty, the most impressive function of “The FBI Files” remains as evidence. Not of such unwholesome activities as advocating equal rights for minorities or sane nuclear policies, but evidence of the capacity of art to take what should have been a bitter and devastating disillusionment and transform it into a rich, occasionally sardonic, but essentially life-affirming, sensual experience. If that’s communism, sign me up.
ARNOLD MESCHES: THE FBI FILES | At SKIRBALL CULTURAL
CENTER, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles | January 30 through March 28
Mesches will discuss the exhibition on Thursday, January 29 at 7:30 p.m. On Saturday, January 31, at 2 p.m., he will join Tom Hayden, Ellen Geer and others in a panel discussion of domestic surveillance, moderated by Tony Kahn. Tickets for both events: (323) 655-8587.
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