Los Angeles

Arnold Mesches

Karl Bornstein Gallery

Arnold Mesches recent paintings are painted on top of some of the most familiar images in Western art—among them Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, and Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Or, rather, they are painted over copies after photographs, as a detail—a mechanically cropped and reproduced image—from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment points out. Mesches’ grounds are aged as well as historical; his repaintings are sanded down and varnished over. Buried under a dark glaze, they are meant to be more than images from the past. They are images of their own pastness: witnesses, albeit false ones, of the history that marks their distance from the present.

Mesches additions, isolated images painted over the patined grounds with the facile ease that has characterized much of his recent work, are also borrowed images, but they are borrowed from the mass media rather than from H. W. Janson. Against their aged but ageless backdrops these pictures—lawn chairs, a spaceman, a body builder—are disposable, their subjects insignificant, banal, and contemporary. For Mesches, they share these attributes with the present; they are the very image of the culture that has produced them. The pudgy, white-suited astronaut floats in the upper right corner of Starry Nights swirling and now scarred sky; the muscle man smiles and poses beneath the towering, dramatic figures of the Last Judgment. And at the foot of The Anatomy Lesson’s depiction of the extension of medical knowledge stands a naked, vacant-eyed man wired with electrodes. What Mesches constructs with his layered images (and rather stacked deck), and what he laments, is the replacement of the natural, the original, and the mythic with the artificial and the reproduced, the technological and the commercial. Van Gogh’s heavens are an image of the unknown, Rembrandt’s doctors of the heroic first steps of knowing; against them Mesches offers only the known, the colonized and instrumentalized.

Mesches’ art is preachy, even scolding, but in two pieces here he takes to task not the present but the past, the great works themselves. The paintings singled out for his scolding, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Monet’s Morning on the Seine, near Giverny, are decidedly secular; they lack the spiritual sentiment that unites his other choices. Over both works Mesches has painted the same image: garish red-and-green chickens, dressed and hanging by their feet. For Mesches, it seems, the birds are more moving, grittier, more real than the darkened backdrops, which pale by comparison. At once displayed and repulsive, the chicken is Mesches’ symbol of nature—denuded, domesticated, yet still fearsome, even repellent in its realities. He places it over Manet’s park and Monet’s “corner of nature” to indict their artificiality, their banality.

Mesches’ additions are moral corrections—in keeping with his paintings’ piety, the birds nakedness seems meant to protest that of Manet’s model, Victorine Meurend—but they fail to recognize the pointed detachment, the irony and self-consciousness, of the works beneath them. Mesches seems not to see how Le Déjeuner acknowledges its artifice and implicates its viewer in it. He paints over it as though he were putting something over on it—as though it were natural. Mesches’ other additions inadvertently belittle the paintings beneath them in much the same way. Each reduces its host to what it is a picture of—men with big muscles, doctors, the sky, a naked woman—and makes it “realistic.” In juxtaposition, both the images from history and those Mesches contributes are democratized and, more to the point, made prosaic; as stories they are equals, their linkage always metonymic and narrative. In his gallery statement, Mesches writes of a point “when the relationships between disparate ideas make a ‘flawless’ possibility, an edge to walk on.” But the paintings themselves are far from the precarious, far from the marvelous or the convulsive. They are flat-footed, literal, and concrete. And if they “are about the fragility of existence,” they are also stodgy and ponderous, as though they feared fragility and what they found in Le Déjeuner—its self-damage and self-consciousness; that is, its Modernism.

Howard Singerman