New York

Charles Arnoldi

Robert Elkon Gallery

Charles Arnoldi’s exhibition is his first of paintings. All seven of them—five large and two small—are identical in concept, and all are named after streets in Venice, California: Mildred, Rose, Wavecrest, Navy, Market, Pico and Ozone. They look something like thick multicolored bundles of telephone wiring. Each is composed of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of short, narrow stripes that chaotically overlap and intersect each other. Though the colors of Arnoldi’s stripes tend to be muted, they cover the whole visible spectrum and include black, gray, gold and silver as well: thus the general look of each of the paintings is fairly bright. Their density is such that one has, at once, an illusion of depth and a sense that they cannot be penetrated.

Just how Arnoldi came to these pictures from the work for which he is best known is mysterious. He is a Los Angeles artist, associated, according to Peter Plagens, with the “L.A. Look,” who has established and pursued a trademark style during the last seven years. His works of this period were constructions of sticks that had been stripped of bark and tangential twigs, then bound together to approximate the shape of frames. Many of these pieces were quite beautiful, as was the idea behind them. One was given the sense of nature trying to be a picture, and of all the native stubbornness and unpredictability that makes a forest such an unlikely artist. For as each of Arnoldi’s sticks would strain to form a straight framing edge or an exact pictorial line, it would veer off in imprecise turns according to natural tropism. While Plagens attributed the resulting fragility of Arnoldi’s pieces to the austere mechanics of Minimalism, I always felt them to be rich and very human works. That fragility, I felt, was at once pathetic, lovely and brave.

Thus his current works come as a disappointing surprise. Where Arnoldi once managed his materials with great delicacy, he overstuffs his new pictures to the point of being heavyhanded. And where there was once, in his works, a kind of dialectical relation between large form and sharply focused, idiosyncratic flourishes, his paintings are so jammed with equally weighted stripes that one must either say the pictures are detailless or else that they contain nothing but detail.

Most lamentable is the fact that the fluent metaphor of his stick constructions has vanished. Nothing exists in the paintings that is comparable to the range of meanings that Arnoldi’s sticks assumed, recalling everything from Atget’s trees to the house of the Swiss Family Robinson. Instead he presents what seems to be an exercise in style, taking something from Jasper Johns’ recent work and more from the current, widespread tendency in abstract painting toward complexity and rich ornamentation. But it is an exercise that Arnoldi has performed with too little finesse, and I, for one, suspect that he will have to weed a good deal out of these cluttered works before discovering what meaning this mode might be able to communicate clearly.

Leo Rubinfien