San Jose Museum of Art

photo: John Hazeltine

San Jose, CA



The following essay is reprinted from the exhibition catalogue Urban Invasion published by the San Jose Museum of Art and accompanys Urban Invasion: Chester Arnold and James Doolin, an exhibition featured at the Museum from July 28 to October 14, 2001. The essay is reprinted with permission of the San Jose Museum of Art.


Chester Arnold: Realizing Meaning

By Karen Kienzle


In his masterful paintings, Chester Arnold successfully negotiates multiple dualities: his European sensibility and American lifestyle; historical precedents and contemporary realities; the drive for content and the desire for formal beauty; man and his relationship to nature; attention to minutiae and appreciation for magnitude; elements of darkness and light. He acknowledges the process is a "balancing act," but his works do not come to rest comfortably on staid middle ground. Instead, they highlight tensions, aiming at the highest possible moral, dramatic, and aesthetic impact.

Chester Arnold describes his childhood as "magical," an upbringing rich with ideas, laughter, conversation, art, travel, and history - all fertile ground for the budding imagination of a future painter. He was born in 1952 in Santa Monica, California, but his family moved around the country for the first several years of his life. His father worked for the United States government as a language specialist involved in international espionage. It was this job that took the family to Munich, Germany, where they lived for over ten years.

The experience of growing up in Germany proved to be pivotal for Arnold's personal and professional development. "The whole European connection provided me with a lot of the technical and historical background that is so important to me as a thinker," he says. School field trips and his own travel as a teenager afforded him the opportunity to see masterworks by Albrecht Altdorfer, Pieter Brueghel, Leonardo da Vinci, and Caspar David Friedrich. Experiencing these paintings firsthand proved tremendously influential for Arnold on both a formal and conceptual level. They became etched in his memory, helping to form part of the unconscious well of historical images from which he draws his remarkable compositions. Moreover, the opportunity to experience these important works marked the birth of his appreciation for the physical satisfaction of old-master paintings - their sensuous surfaces and subtle glazes. Even his most immediate surroundings were influential. Arnold remembers that the family home was bordered by a dense forest straight out of Grimm's fairy tales - "a wonderland for the imagination," he recalls. Simon Schama, in Landscape and Memory, writes that many have noted that our memories of fairy tales are inextricably linked to forests: "And it is always a northern Germanic wood: a place of firs and beeches and monstrously deformed oaks." This dark and mysterious forest appears as an intriguing background element in many of Arnold's paintings, including Incidents at Half Past Five, 1992.

Arnold remembers that his brain was always "wired" visually. As a child, he disliked reading, preferring to look at pictures instead. Growing up abroad, he was spared the onslaught of television images suffered by his American contemporaries. The limited programming available on German television made radio an attractive alternative for the Arnold family. In listening to the radio, the artist found himself unconsciously sharpening his imaginative skills. As he explains, "Radio has a way of animating your visual faculties because you are imagining all the time what you are hearing. And I think that played an enormous role in my ability to generate visual material spontaneously."

During adolescence, Arnold pursued many interests, but lacked any clear direction. As a student at the American School in Munich between 1966 and 1969, he received high grades only in his art classes. He served as the unofficial school artist - doing illustrations for the yearbook and newspaper. At the same time, he was dabbling in antiquities, amassing a small collection of nineteenth-century military objects such as helmets and swords, and was actually entertaining the idea of becoming an antiques dealer.

However, when he was sixteen years old, Arnold saw a Max Beckmann retrospective at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. He found Beckmann's bold, intense work enlightening and the exhibition provided the primary impetus for him to become an artist. Until that time, Arnold had equated art with the work of the Old Masters, and had never seen contemporary art at first hand. The Beckmann show presented an entirely new world of possibilities. In Beckmann, Arnold saw an artist who had translated his interest in the art of the past into a unique and powerful expression. Not long after seeing the retrospective, Arnold, looking at the antiques around his room, saw them in an entirely new way - as representing an alien persona that had grown around him like mold. Subsequently, he sold off his collection and bought his very first easel. It was the beginning of his lifelong commitment to being an artist.

Soon afterward, Arnold's father encouraged him to enroll in the Famous Artists Correspondence School. Advertised on matchbooks and in magazines throughout the 1960s, the school provided art lessons to the general public. Unfortunately, because of the logistics of sending the lessons back and forth across the Atlantic and the untimely demise of the school, Arnold never graduated. Nevertheless, he views the venture as one of the most important elements in his education. The coursework provided the solid background in materials and technique that would prove invaluable later. The grounding in technique proved especially useful when he was in college, at a time when conceptual rather than practical education was emphasized. Arnold also furthered his art training while in high school by studying with Theodore ("Ted") Akimoto, who took a special interest in the young artist, encouraging him to explore new directions in his work and assuming a role as a second father figure in his life.

Although the evidence of Arnold's upbringing in Germany is discernable in his work, it is that collision - of the European and American, the historical with the contemporary - that makes his paintings particularly interesting. Arnold returned to the United States in 1970, settling with his parents in Mill Valley. For the next four years, he attended the College of Marin in Kentfield, California.

In 1972, while he was still in college, Arnold began the second job that would occupy him peripherally for the next twenty years: delivering newspapers for the San Francisco Chronicle. His motivation for pursuing the work was both financial and ethical. As Arnold says, "coming from a middle-class or lower middle-class family and income level, the idea of getting a job to support the habit was essential." Seven days a week, Arnold would wake up before dawn to drive over fifty miles a day delivering six hundred newspapers throughout Mill Valley. The job eventually became so automatic that he could do it in a couple of hours - leaving his days free to paint.

At the age of thirty-three, Arnold was accepted into the graduate program at the San Francisco Art Institute through the equivalency program. Looking back, he cites the atmosphere of the Art Institute in the 1980s as one of the most important aspects of the experience. "I was challenged a lot there. I had never really been challenged that much because I always got so much praise from people in lower education." Gaining something positive from all his instructors, he studied with Bruce McGaw and Pegan Brooke, took art history and criticism seminars from Jim Jordan and Kenneth Baker, the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He found himself challenged on a technical level by both his peers and his professors - even to the point of having to justify his preference for painting over other media. Ultimately, he adopted a perfectionism: "This is really a competitive world, to do what you do in any less than the most superlative way that you can is a waste of time."

While Arnold experimented stylistically at various points in his career, his entire body of work shows a powerful drive toward content. Even his early influences, Max Beckmann and the social realism of Jack Levine, demonstrate his primary interest in communicating moral perspectives in his painting. Often, the drive toward content is reflected in Arnold's exploration of his subjects. An interest in examining deeper undercurrents characterizes Arnold's brand of realism, whether he is depicting the dark side of life (death), of nature (catastrophe), or of man (through environmental destruction). He observes: "I have a reputation as someone who is interested in the dark side of things. I like to maintain a balance between what's happening on the cultural level and what's happening on the primordial level. I think it's something we're going to have to come to terms with if we expect to survive." But Arnold's particular achievement, and the one that resonates throughout his oeuvre, is that presentation of content - albeit darkness - in a physically and formally beautiful manner. He describes it as an endeavor to "build a structure around the message that has some type of intrinsic beauty to it so that as you take it in, it's going to affect you aesthetically as well as politically or philosophically."

While in graduate school, Arnold also became increasingly interested in the physical materials of painting. Stemming from his early affection for old-master paintings, Arnold began to wonder why they looked and felt so satisfying - and why he was unable to replicate the results. He discerned a disparity between the fabrics on which the historical works were painted and those materials that were available to him commercially. Investigating linens, he began to experiment with alternate ways of preparing them for painting. The process he devised, which he bemoaned as "ridiculously, wonderfully time consuming," involves his constructing the wooden stretchers, stretching the linen, sizing it with glue, scraping it, standing it, sizing it again, and then coating it with a lead ground. The intimate involvement with his materials - he admits that he becomes invested in the work "from the first staple" - leads, he says, to results entirely different from anything created with commercially prepared materials. This complete internalization of the appreciation for craftsmanship that had begun in his childhood infuses all of his paintings with a deeply personal element. "I realized that in a world in which there were so many mechanically made things, the things that I prized had to do with the sensitivity and touch of the individual."

In 1988, Arnold came full circle when he returned to the College of Marin to touch. He initially joined the faculty part-time, and became a full-time instructor in 2000. Arnold feels strongly that teaching has deepened his own work, providing him with an opportunity to test his own ideas about painting (he likens it to "spreading the gospel"). Moreover, the exchange with his students continues to enrich him personally and professionally.

The late 1980s proved to be a critical turning point in Arnold's career. In 1987, Arnold's first daughter, Dorothea, was born and his brother and father died. The compound effect of these events rendered Arnold acutely aware of issues of life and mortality. "The real sense of urgency and preciousness of every experience became just overwhelming," he confesses, "and my work intensified." The birth of his first child was an uplifting experience that instilled in Arnold a drive to leave behind something of value for the next generation, a responsibility that has "upped the ante" for himself and his painting. This motivation was furthered with the birth of his second daughter, Lili, in 1989. Speaking of his two children, he says: "They are a constant reminder of childhood, and the enthusiasm and surprise that childhood is as it encounters life for the first time." He attributes some of his recent "still life" painting [of] insects to the influence of his children, a direct result of crawling around on the ground with them - something he never would have done on his own.

The appreciation for the urgency of life is one of the primary themes in Arnold's work: vanitas. The vanitas tradition, which became particularly important to seventeenth-century Dutch painters, bespeaks a concern for the fragility of man and the fleeting quality of life. John B. Ravenal refers to the tradition as a "moralizing counterbalance" that emphasizes the temporal quality of our worldly lives. Most prominent in Dutch still-life paintings of the period, vanitas would often appear with the inclusion of a memento mori in the form of a skull or other human remains.

Arnold acknowledges that Dutch painting in general, and Dutch still-life paintings specifically, strongly influenced his work on formal and philosophical levels. For many years he has kept a skeleton, which has made appearances in some of his works, notably as fossil remains in the haunting Worlds Apart (1995). One of Arnold's first jobs after high school was as an animator for a Grateful Dead film. The artist found himself drawing spinning skeletons in a six-month job that rendered him a "skeleton specialist."

Arnold also says that this interest in death was a direct result of growing up in Europe shortly after World War II, when "there was a sense of death and destruction everywhere." The effect on the young artist was profound. He remembers that "to encounter death in that way was a really powerful experience. It slowly processed through the next couple of decades."

Memento Mori, 1993, depicting a funeral procession in a gloomy graveyard, takes its title directly from the visual clues used by seventeenth-century Dutch artists. At first glance the scene presents a somber reminder of death, but Arnold anchors the composition with a single dramatic and ultimately hopeful tree. The tree's veinlike branches are currently bare, but they promise future regeneration. Upon further inspection of the work, one notices that the tombstones carry the names of some of the illustrious art stars of the 1980s: Wool, Witkin, Koons, and Salle. This dark humor is typical of Arnold's work. He attributes it to his parents' family ethic: "the idea of being able to laugh at yourself, laugh at the world, to make life's catastrophes bearable."

Arnold's deep reverence for life also finds reflection in his appreciation for nature and his concern for man's impact on the environment. This interplay between man and nature has been an integral concern throughout his body of work. Many of his recent paintings document the ways in which man attempts to exert control over the environment, frequently suggesting the violence with which nature can assert her dominance, often through catastrophe.

However, Arnold is also capable of quieter and more introspective reveries on the landscape. For many years, he has done plein-air painting as a peripheral activity, often creating studies for his major paintings. Ramifications, 1994, depicts a close-up view of an intensely expressive walnut tree, whose intricate branches seem to permeate the entire canvas.

Arnold's title reminds us that the literal translation of ramification is "the act or process of branching." The tree's densely layered branches support several crows but also reveal hints of encroaching civilization: power lines and the bright white stucco of a house in the background.

Like many of Arnold's works, the inspiration for Ramifications has a historical precedent, specifically The Tree of Crows, 1822, by Caspar David Friedrich. In fact, Arnold was so inspired by the work that he kept a postcard of the painting in his studio for years. One of the most important figures in German Romantic painting, Friedrich is credited with developing his own genre, "the tragedy of landscape." The oak tree is an important motif in Friedrich's oeuvre, serving interchangeably as a symbol of death, history, and alienation. Similarly, Arnold recognizes the symbolic importance of trees, often using them as metaphors in his own work. But Ramifications was also inspired by a living walnut tree that he could see from his studio window. He remembers that in the later afternoon light the branches would appear luminous, as if plated in gold. In the end, it was Friedrich's work, paired with the actual tree, that served as the catalyst for the painting. As Arnold explains, he was "so moved by the beauty of the reality, so moved by the beauty of the historical precedent," that he felt an intense drive to produce the work.

In contrast, Arnold's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1996, warns of the apocalyptic results that can occur when nature fights back against man. Dominated by a monumental rock formation that stabilizes the composition, the work presents a scene of tourism gone awry. While miniature cars progress in a cavalcade reminiscent of the traffic at Yosemite National Park, rocks fall and fires burn through the landscape. Arnold made the work in direct reference to Pieter Brueghel's Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558-1566. In Brueghel's painting, all of the characters in the drama look away as the unfortunate Icarus falls into the water head first. W.H. Auden described the event in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts:

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
have heard the splash, the foresaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Arnold's interpretation of the scenario has a small airplane crashing into the water in the lower left corner of the work. Here, as in the Brueghel, the catastrophic event occurs unnoticed. In their fervor to get to their destination, these tourists are oblivious to both the catastrophe and the dramatically beautiful landscape surrounding them. Arnold, however, seems to demand that his viewers directly experience the natural world. His landscapes often dwarf his human elements, which he frequently renders in miniature. In Tailings, 1996, trucks and figures become antlike in the face of a dramatic mining pit. A similar effect is intensified by Arnold's use of perspective in many of his paintings: His works often present an aerial view, in which the viewer is hovering above pits or holes in the earth.

By emphasizing the landscape in this confrontation of man and nature, Arnold uses a pictorial device to explore a theme popular among eighteenth-century landscape painters: the sublime. During the Romantic period, painters sought to express the awe-inspiring, often terrifying aspects of the landscape. For both the Romantics and Arnold, the sublime provided a vehicle for articulating nature's dark side. As Hugh Honour writes of the Romantic painters: "They express that feeling for the sublimity of nature - the exhilarating terror inspired by rushing torrents, roaring waterfalls, precipitous crags, unattainable mountain peaks - which had grown steadily stronger in the course of the eighteenth century." Depictions of the sublime in nature often work hand-in-hand with the content in Arnold's paintings, allowing him to place man's pursuits into a larger perspective.

Movements, 1994, provides a fine example. Here, Arnold depicts a wave of tiny figures dwarfed by an enormous expanse of sky that is forebodingly dark and churning with movement. Arnold began the work with the landscape and sky, unsure about what to paint below to complete the work. Coming across a tragic photograph in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of numerous Rwandan refugees cooking and cleaning at a riverside, he incorporated the imagery into his painting. Arnold remembers that he wanted to contrast "this enormous force of nature, which was really an enormous force in these peoples lives - genocide being committed. And yet, it was a sort of putting everything into perspective. The whole human drama is always secondary to the cosmic drama somehow."

Another strong example of Arnold's exploration of the theme of man and his relationship to nature is Entropic Landscape, 1999. In this work, the landscape is composed of man's detritus. Massive piles of discarded tires form towering hills and a deep central valley holds a pool of stagnant water. In the background, Arnold paints in a smoldering fire - suggesting impending catastrophe. Despite the dark pessimism, the painting is truly beautiful. In this terrible scene of consumption and waste, Arnold finds beauty and communicates it through a masterful composition. The tire piles envelop the viewer in a pleasing undulating rhythm, the darkness of the rubber is offset by subtle highlights in the standing water and sky, and the fire and pluming smoke infuse a sense of visual drama and dynamism into the work.

Entropic Landscape leads smoothly into Arnold's recent Accumulation series. Here, the piles of discarded tires become motley piles of objects, furniture, and trash. The catalyst for this series was an assignment that he had been giving his students for years involving a drawing of all the objects that they could remember. Often disappointed with the volume of things that his students could remember, he decided to try the exercise himself. As many of his drawings take on the appearance of piles, and since this is a motif that appears throughout his body of work, it is natural that these Accumulations would take the form of heaps of 'junk.' Accumulation, 1998, was the first painting in the series that Arnold attempted. In retrospect, Arnold admits it was "probably the most fun I ever had making a painting." The work functions as a visual autobiography represented in objects. Arnold started the work by sketching, in neutral blue gray, all of the objects he could render by memory. In the process, he found himself revisiting childhood, remembering toys and even furniture in his family home. "It was a fascinating journey through the objects," he recalls. He then began to paint the objects, structuring and reorganizing to create the most satisfying composition. In the end, Arnold was fascinated by the realism with which he was able to represent the objects, guided only by his dreamlike memories. Amazingly, as Accumulation proves, Arnold is able to make even the densest trash pile appear compelling. At the same time, the painting leads the viewer to ponder deeper thoughts of consumption - provoking an unsettling feeling as we try to imagine what our own pile of objects might look like.

The Fate of Durable Goods, 1999, directly modeled after Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819, provides an interesting counterpoint [to] the more focused allover accumulations. Arnold replaces the shipwreck victims of the original with trash, the remnants of our consumer culture. He had been using Géricault's masterwork as a model in the classroom for years, focusing an entire semester on the work. When Arnold's New York dealer, George Adams, asked the artists in his stable to create works in homage to other artists for an upcoming show, the Géricault was Arnold's natural choice. In fact, he was so familiar with the historical precedent that he found himself able to create the painting without a reference image of the work.

This essay is copyrighted by the San Jose Museum of Art. The essay is reprinted from the exhibition catalogue Urban Invasion published by the San Jose Museum of Art. This 56-page four-color publication is available from the San Jose Museum of Art Museum Store. The exhibition Urban Invasion is organized by the San Jose Museum of Art and is on view from July 28 - October 14, 2001.


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