Old fart, great art

The witty, profound paintings of the venerable Arnold Mesches.

click to enlarge Arnold Mesches, Weather Patterns 10, 2009 - Courtesy of the Artist and Mindy Solomon Gallery
Courtesy of the Artist and Mindy Solomon Gallery
Arnold Mesches, Weather Patterns 10, 2009

I first heard about Arnold Mesches a couple of years ago when the New Museum, in New York City, put on an exhibition titled "Younger than Jesus" that celebrated artists under the age of 33. The show took some ribbing for its veneration of youth, and one of the wittiest ripostes to it was an exhibition called "Older Than God" organized at a gallery across the Bowery from the New Museum.

Mesches, an 87-year-old painter who lives in Gainesville, was in it, along with other artists of enviable longevity. Now he's the focus of a solo exhibition at Mindy Solomon Gallery in St. Petersburg that features more than 20 paintings by the prolific artist, whose works have been collected by such prestigious institutions as the National Gallery of Art and the Whitney Museum.

So I probably should have known about Mesches a lot earlier. But, then, what do I know? I'm one of those "younger than Jesus" types. (Thirty-one, to be exact. It only seems fair to disclose this if I'm going to out Mesches as an octogenarian.)

In general I think the relevance of age to art-making is dubious — older artists seem to have, if anything, a clearer appreciation of what looks fresh and invigorating than younger artists — but Mesches' paintings invite consideration of the formidable painterly life that has informed their technical deftness and playful philosophizing. Attitudes that circulate through the paintings — preoccupation with one's relationship to historical painters, a sense of the fragility and profound absurdity of life, an appreciation of nature as unsettlingly awesome — seem more the concerns of a badass old motherfucker than a junior practitioner.

At no time is this clearer than when you're sitting on the crapper at Solomon's gallery reading an essay Mesches wrote a decade ago about his prostate troubles. No joke. The essay is mounted to a wall facing the toilet in the gallery's relatively spacious bathroom, which makes taking a seat on the pristine commode a natural way to fully digest the essay while surrounded by the sunset paintings to which it relates. As regular visitors to Solomon's gallery will know, no disrespect is intended by this positioning; the gallery's restroom is virtually always reserved for extra-special work that benefits from intimate viewing. (I recall once peering into a sculpture shaped like a vulva to watch a hidden video in Solomon's WC — an all-around delightful experience.)

The improbable empathy I experienced while sitting alone on a toilet in a small room and contemplating Arnold Mesches's prostate is one of the more impactful emotional experiences I can recall having recently in a gallery or museum. Maybe it's the way being "on the pot" is the ultimate democratizing experience — with my ass (fully clothed, incidentally) hanging over the porcelain bowl, I was not in a position to remain aloof from Mesches' darkly humorous account of being pierced by a urologist too busy flirting with a nurse to pay attention. Emerging from such an experience to confront a world in which your dick doesn't work quite the way it used to and still having the chutzpah to paint Caribbean sunsets (between snorkeling excursions and catheter insertions) that don't look like hotel art seems to me a profound comment on the meaning of life.

And isn't that why we look at art?

Each of the three bodies of Mesches' work on view in the gallery evinces an engagement with what Milan Kundera called "the unbearable lightness of being." It's such a cliché to say Mesches' sunsets are sublime, but I'll do it anyway. They inspire a throat-thickening sense of the vastness and vague danger of nature rather than an experience of looking at something pretty, thanks to a palette of thunderous grays and atonal notes of color that render skies as if they were Schoenberg compositions.

In the Weather Patterns series, Mesches places circus performers — like a trio of trapeze artists flying through the air on swings — amid roiling cloudscapes. My favorite in the series, though, Weather Patterns 6, adopts a fecund cypress swamp as its setting. Into the lush green of the weepy cypresses enters a clown on stilts, his lurid attire and toothy grin absurdly out of place. Without being too literally about anything — though when I visited the gallery Solomon suggested that they symbolized the precariousness of human existence — the paintings channel a deep vein of comedy.

The painter's wit emerges again in paintings of his palette table — sometimes by itself, sometimes overlaid onto a painting of a painting meant to evoke the work of an Old Master (or a modern master, in the case of a Van Gogh bouquet framed with crusty discs of dried paint). While on display in the sunsets and Weather Patterns paintings — those cypress trees, for instance, are built up in thick daubs of blue, green and gray with flecks of red — Mesches’ way of handling paint approaches a virtuosic crescendo in the paintings of paint. Gloopy acrylic impasto gets pushed around in coloristic acrobatics, like the painstaking application of blood-red shadows to the inside of a (painted) canister, or the evocation of swirls of paint atop the palette by, er, swirls of paint atop the canvas.

Taken as a whole, the show reads as a rumination on painting — and life — by an artist with the perspective to know. Chalk up that perspective, if you like, to a certain age.

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