San Francisco

Charles Arnoldi

Fuller Goldeen Gallery

Charles Arnoldi engages in “wood play,” as filled with double entendres as it is with sticks, chunks, and panels of wood. The au naturel branches act as asynecdoche for nature itself. Yet the tumble of dark sticks across the surface also suggests the turbulence of heavy brush-strokes, epitomizing the action painting of postwar culture. Updated via mixed media constructions, this Los Angeles artist’s reliefs and sculptures could be considered the West Coast’s answer to New York School painterly abstraction of the ’50s, with actual branches substituting for branched brush-strokes. But the ephemerality of this provincial gesture in Arnoldi’s works wore off years ago; the more significant gestures now evince a greater ideational quotient.

Arnoldi emphasizes the dual identity of the sticks by direct juxtaposition; in Veil, 1985, the spill of sticks partially obscures the underlying polychrome panel of expressively brushed strokes which look like faceted, bright lights shining through. The contrast offers more conceptual bristle when the objectified wood “strokes” are adjacent to painterly ones in multipanel reliefs like the diptych Source, 1985. Here, a close-up of a fiery volcano blowing its top, roughly articulated by broad swathes of lurid hues, is next to a panel with a random array of sticks over dark brush-strokes. On the simplest narrative level the eruption could be the “source” for the adjacent fall of branches, yet the composition also layers more provocative questions about origins and realities. The illusionistic picture refers to a real mountaintop whereas the actual sticks refer to painterly abstraction. Simultaneously, both the rather crude brushstrokes and the natural branches are very concrete, emphasizing the materiality of the construction. The ambiguous contradictions between illusion and realness generate Arnoldi’s most substantial impact.

In motifs without this dialectic Arnoldi mitigates his frequent tendency toward vivacious but rather emotionally shallow abstractions through brutal manipulation of the wood. Several-inches-thick panels are gouged with a chain saw or gored with an axe in overlaid diagonals, creating irregular openings in places; then they are painted just as brashly. Again Arnoldi translates a painterly style into the handling of wood. A work like Fader, 1985, with jutting facets of luscious chartreuse, coppery tan, and yellow, suggests the splintered background of a German Expressionist tropical landscape, or, more specifically, the rayonism of Natalya Goncharova’s 1912 Green Forest. Physical and emotional aggression toward one’s materials doesn’t necessarily produce profound images; in Fader, however, Arnoldi synthesizes the fervor of the Europeans with the sunniness of California, resulting in bold internal tensions between brusque form and seductive coloration.

Suzaan Boettger