Most artists, if they live long enough, settle into a "mature" phase at around 50 or 60, amalgamating all the lessons they have learned along the way, practicing a style solidified and recognizable.
Not Arnold Mesches.
About two years shy of his 90th birthday, the man continues to surprise.
A small but terrific show of his paintings from 2009 and 2010 at Mindy Solomon Gallery contains the work of someone deeply engaged in the present, still on a quest to question both broad social ideas and specific art tenets of the here and now.
There are examples from three recent series: Weather Patterns, Painting and Sunsets. They all have Mesches' signature brush strokes, thick and lavish, and his loose way with representation, a technique I would describe as casually violent.
He long ago decided not to be a meticulous painter, unconcerned that bits of blue background are visible on the green slipper of a trapeze artist. That the wild fear of horses crashing toward us in flight from lightning bolts is rendered in dots and dashes. Or that blending for him means color, color and more color laid beside and on top of each other in those signature broad ribbons of thick paint.
He's unafraid, and seems to have been throughout his career.
Mesches was an activist in the late 1940s when he worked in Hollywood as a set painter and was a part of the famous and failed union strike that led to the practice of blacklisting and prefigured the McCarthy era. He became a teacher and successful professional artist and remained active in political and human rights causes. He learned that the FBI had kept a file on him from 1945 to 1972, numbering 760 pages, using friends, lovers and students as informers. He gained access to it in 1999 and, surprisingly, found a kind of beauty in the way the blacked-out portions formed patterns on the typed pages. He used them in collages that included news clippings, photos and his own drawings and paintings. He called them "contemporary illuminated manuscripts" and named the group The FBI Files. They were a big hit when exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art's PS1 facility in 2002 and went on a national tour.
They were really a detour, and he returned to straight-on painting. The works from the painting series are homages to great artists who have influenced him. Great paintings by Rembrandt, El Greco and van Gogh are re-created by him, not as exact copies but clearly recognizable. Then he stages an intervention, adding to the Rembrandt, for example, his own table full of colorful paint cans. They take us back to the beginning of a work of art, when the painter stands before a blank canvas with his materials, and then to what a good painter can make of those materials. It's gutsy to be so literal. They are also, perhaps, a declaration that painting itself remains important and vital in a time when many younger artists have dismissed its relevance.
The best among this group are novel and arresting. The least successful seem gimmicky. The famously foreshortened Lamentation of Christ by Andrea Mantegna from the 15th century is surrounded by a frame made of old paintbrushes. Maybe they're also meant to suggest the spikes that nailed Jesus to the cross? I didn't get it.
In Weather Patterns he juxtaposes circus performers onto a background of dramatic meteorological activity. A trapeze artist flies through the air, inches from a life-saving catch; a man is shot from a canon; an acrobat balances upside down. All are projected against storm clouds and lightning, not only defying gravity but an eminent weather cataclysm. How will they land? And, as metaphors, the paintings ask: How will we land in these turbulent times?
In the Sunset series, Mesches takes a vacation of sorts, reveling in the joy of painting. Sky and clouds, light and encroaching darkness are captured in an ecstatic dance of color and texture by an artist reveling in his craft.
Perhaps because of his craft, Mesches has eluded greater fame. His works are in permanent collections of many prestigious museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but he hasn't had a major retrospective. Though this is his 132nd exhibition, he has never, except for The FBI Files, received a lot of press. He has chosen to be a hybrid, using the strong gestural strokes associated with abstract expressionism, a huge movement during the 1940s and 1950s. Artists of that style used the brushstrokes, the gestures, to convey emotion and ideas abstractly.
Mesches is a representational painter (though the sunsets are borderline). And he packs plenty of feeling into his work. Not for him are ironic commentary or suave art history references. He's straightforward.
I don't know if the path he has chosen will ever put him in the upper ranks. He's respected but not discussed. I don't think he cares. But people interested in good art should care about seeing his while they can.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.