San Francisco

Chester Arnold

Susan Cummins Gallery

Whether seen from a bird’s-eye view or scrutinized at close range, the world described by Chester Arnold’s landscapes is a beautiful but ominous place. On remote-looking granite peaks or in bleak strip mines, next to a busy anthill or in the burnt remains of a forest, fascinating disasters both natural and entirely man-made regularly threaten to unfold.

The dark narratives hinted at in these expansive canvases (most measure six feet along at least one dimension) have been pieced together from a number of sources, not the least of which is Arnold’s particularly poetic imagination. As in Arnold’s work of the past, Pieter Brueghel’s satirical revelation of human folly is part of the mix, a source attested to by both the composition and the title of a work like Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Among Others, 1996. Compared with Brueghel’s version of the Greek myth—a peasant peaceably plows his field in the foreground, unaware of Icarus’ unintended descent into the vast blue bowl of the ocean nearby—Arnold’s painting looks downright apocalyptic. Blood-red clouds boil over a gorgeous mountain, its scale made stupefyingly immense by the tiny cars lined bumper-to-bumper on its side. Like Brueghel’s oblivious peasant, the vehicles’ occupants are unaware of an airplane that is in the process of disappearing into the dark water of a lake far below. They are equally unaware of the avalanche of boulders falling into view from somewhere outside the frame: rocks that will soon crush both vehicles and occupants on another part of the narrow road that snakes along the cliffs. As these details reveal themselves, the flames and smoke rising from a forest fire in the distance begin to elicit the thought that the mountain itself—in size and shape a dead-ringer for Brueghel’s Tower of Babel—may in fact be a (not so) dormant volcano. And, is the tiny city far off in the distance burning as well? It’s hard to tell.

Like magic realist Peter Blume, Arnold manages to present fantastic or exaggerated scenes in a completely matter-of-fact way. Still, his sardonic perversity is too subtle to be described as surreal. In Mine Tailings, 1996, a few trucks rumble along the terraces of an excavated pit so large that it extends beyond the distant horizon. The gray and black values of this dismal yet all-too-real panorama are relieved only by a couple of poisonous-looking pools of water and a clump of orange flames near the bottom of the picture. Perhaps something terrible has happened: a truck has tumbled down the rocky slope, exploding on impact, or some machinery has accidentally combusted. Still, the workers above continue to trudge along, suggesting that the story being told in Mine Tailings has nothing to do with a particular event. The fire is nothing special. The landscape itself is the catastrophe.

Maria Porges