New York

Arnold Mesches

Civilian Warfare

Arnold Mesches, 61, from California, pulled a fast one on the Lower East Side art scene by coming up with a painting gimmick as good or better than most in that hook-obsessed milieu, then actually painting dynamically enough through his concept to make it come off in a powerful if preachy way. His biggest and most successful conceit is a simple one: a double exposure, with an Old Master limned murkily as a background and a contemporary image foregrounded in blaring colors. In a California context—a comparison show of Mesches’ in Los Angeles was reviewed in Artforum in March—this double vision might appear as an art-historical gloss, but in the East Village its social commentary dominates. And Mesches’ ‘50s-expressionist vocabulary—garish colors in jarring combinations, gestural strokes, blunt compositions—handles the usual moral angst with intimidating authority. In Art in Public Places I, 1983, the bloodied red forms of Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci hang upside down and dead (in an image copied from a photograph) over a murky bluish backdrop of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830. There’s a superficially lighter tone in Art in Public Places II, 1984, in which a World War II soldier riding a bicycle and blowing on a sousaphone pedals toward the viewer against the background, again drained and bluish, of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, 1819. The glowing golds and oranges of this silly martial figure contrast with the dimly visible nightmare behind it, and the respective themes of the two images are mutually revealing: the insouciant insanity of a “modern” society committing suicide looks like a Monty Python joke when juxtaposed with Géricault’s tragic vision.

Other, more conventional paintings, which lack the art-historical backdrops, are also impressively executed, but have a heavy-handed quality. The Test, 1983, a glowing red torso with EKG-like cords attached, and The Model, 1983, a white-haired head topping a flayed-looking body, work out some standard Expressionist chops on the grotesquerie of physical life. Even a relatively neutral sketch from 1983 of a brushy lifeboat—seen up close in the gallery’s constricted hallway, it seems only a technical exercise in dark blue on black—turns out to push a message when you catch the title: The Armada I.

If all this sounds like a basic moralistic expressionism, that's right. “I think we're in trouble,” Mesches has said, guilelessly, and his anger at the social irrelevance of high standards in art and elsewhere, and at the brutality of modern life, screams from his work. Mesches’ hectoring is like a long-lost message in a bottle, finally drifting up on East Village shores like a howl of outrage from a grizzled gestural Jeremiah. Rarely has a sense of cultural alarm been so expertly carried off in a context which seems to pride itself on its appropriation of angst in art.

And yet—these literal, humorless works, like well-worn sermons, are finally rhetorical summations. Mesches’ skillful expressionism is the ne plus Ultra of the current retributive painting that prefers outright morality to ambiguity, the apocalypse to the mundane; but while commandments are compelling, they don't tally up with the complexities of contemporary life. Preachy painting may tell you something important , but Sunday’s sermons tend to get packed away when you go about your business on Monday.

John Howell