San Francisco

Chester Arnold

William Sawyer Gallery

The legacy of the vogue for “bad” painting has been a lot of bad paintings. But when and if the art world rewards skillful image-making again, Bay Area painter Chester Arnold will be in a strong position. Arnold has evolved his own brand of dreamy, intermittently nightmarish realism. It is governed by a rich, flickering touch that is equally conversant with the American reverie of Charles Burchfield, the landscape space of early Dutch painting, and the cryptic, in-yourface narrative of the late Philip Guston. Several of the big pictures in Arnold’s latest show have worm’s-eye vantage points, partly to allow the artist the pleasure of painting, almost blade by blade, swaths of parched grass. Arnold tunes his work’s verisimilitude to allow for a generous, but not too sumptuous display of paint.

For all its probity of technique, Arnold’s art is not without irony or self-preoccupation. This show was dominated by a picture called Supply and Demand (all works, 1989), an uningratiating but beautifully realized image of a huge fist pounding on a wood slab, causing some loose change to bounce into the air. The painting expresses bluntly the frustration felt by most painters who try to support themselves by their art. The mighty fist brings Guston to mind both by its directness and by the way it galvanizes pictorial space. If Arnold hadn’t produced such a strong show, this angry gesture would have seemed merely self-indulgent. (As it was, the scale and violence of the image threw the show out of balance.) But the artist earns brandishing rights by turning out a big roomful of pictures without redundancy and with hardly a square inch where craftsmanly attention flags.

The pragmatic and inner struggles of the painter’s life, and the speculators’ ruin of the California landscape––both shadowed by presentiments of death––have been points of departure for Arnold in years past. Fallen Logger, for example, is a close-up view of the stump and trunk-end of a just-felled tree. Next to them lie the feet of the supine logger, victim perhaps of some unexplained ecological retribution. Ominously, only the axe, its blade bit into the tree stump, still stands. Several works in this show had their source in the artist’s responses to the recent death of his father. The paintings’ elegiac references are transfigured so as not to reveal their impetus openly. The End of an Era is almost comic: from a ground-level vantage point, a foot boots a skeleton out of the frame. Jawbones tumble away at the lower right while the cranium sails out of the upper corner against a light-soaked sky, like a wayward planet. (In fact, the skeleton is a studio prop that has cropped up in Arnold’s work for years.) The artist kicks it away in a symbolic effort to rid himself of unassuageable grief. The pit that yawns beneath Arnold’s foot in the foreground suggests that the grave is never far from his mind, but that it won’t halt his stride in the meantime.

In the big foot that sweeps into The End of An Era, there is a remembrance of the keep-on-truckin’ stride of R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural.” But most of the artistic references and the humor in Arnold’s images are more submerged than this. The daring exception in this show was -One Last Landscape (With Sunflower)_, an homage to Van Gogh. It is a tall, narrow canvas filled by a towering sunflower at the edge of a parched field, with a plein-air painter collapsed at the foot of his easel in the distance. Arnold avoids expressionistic technique here, but extends with wry modesty the Northern Romantic vision that culminated in Van Gogh and early Mondrian. I know few painters who could make such a painting and avoid souring it with irony or trickery.

Kenneth Baker