For artist Chester Arnold, painting is as much about politics and social responsibility as it is about crafting luscious large-scale oil paintings in the tradition of nineteenth-century European artists. With sometimes dark humor, the paintings in Chester Arnold: On Earth as It Is in Heaven opening August 14 at the Nevada Museum of Art, asks viewers to consider the impacts of human and industrial consumption, accumulation, and waste on the natural environment.
Since he began painting over three decades ago, West Coast-based artist Arnold has cleverly confronted a range of challenging subjects. Concerned about the increasing impact of human interventions on landscapes in a densely populated and deeply consumer-driven world, Arnold’s work questions the nature of human beings’ relationship to the landscape, offering cautionary warnings about society’s unbridled cycles of production and consumption on an industrial scale.
“My paintings are a big conversation I’m having with the world,” Arnold says of the richly-painted canvases spanning his thirty year career. Many of the paintings in the exhibition are based loosely on real environmental scenarios, such as the monumental canyon of discarded automobile tires that populates Arnold’s Entropic Landscape—a real larger-than-life discarded tire pile exists in California’s Central Valley. Arnold’s images of deforestation and tree harvesting in paintings such as Histories (2010) are not unlike the paintings of similar despoiled landscapes painted by nineteenth century American artists working long before him. And Arnold has also made three paintings of large-scale strip mines, including Holding Pond (1996) seen from an aerial view. The sublime terraced canyons are punctuated by smoky canyons and smoldering fires with holding ponds that contain mineral-rich, blood-red or copper-green drainage run-off that has been left behind by the mining process. Arnold’s depictions of such altered landscapes bring the consequences of human progress to the attention of viewers.
“The pieces in this exhibition engage with issues of work and labor, nature and environment, industrial production and consumption, and the amassing and disposal of consumer products,” says Ann M. Wolfe, Curator and Exhibitions and Collections, Nevada Museum of Art. “The works are both cautionary and confessional, revealing human foibles and follies and what Arnold considers to be their devastating consequences. Arnold’s landscape paintings also ask viewers to consider how human activities—of both the individual and large-scale industries—impact the landscape.”
Also featured in the exhibition is a series of paintings Arnold calls Accumulations, which reveal the ongoing cycle of consumption and disposal resulting from mass production. First created during the late 1990s, a time in American history noted for its booming economic prosperity, Arnold navigates America’s seeming disregard for accumulating and discarding mass-produced merchandise.
Underlying Arnold’s critiques of America’s consumer culture is an implicit acknowledgment of the economic engine driving mass production. Many of Arnold’s paintings allude to corporate business culture and the resources required to keep offices running throughout the country. The Business in America is Business (2008) and Means of Communication (2008) both depict streets littered with discarded office correspondence, perhaps cast from the skyscrapers of urban financial districts during past ticker-tape parades. It is especially ironic that the global financial services firm Lehman Brothers acquired one of Arnold’s paper accumulation paintings, Means of Communication (2008), for its corporate art collection not long before the company declared bankruptcy in 2008—the largest U.S. bankruptcy filing in history.
“Arnold’s works ask viewers to consider how one’s individual behaviors interface with ongoing cycles of industrial production and consumption,” says Ann M. Wolfe, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections, Nevada Museum of Art. “They ask us to acknowledge and celebrate hard work, but to consider the irrevocable consequences of our labors.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, a special dialogue between San Francisco Chronicle Art Critic Kenneth Baker and artist Chester Arnold takes place Saturday, September 11 from 5:30 to 8 pm. Join Baker and Arnold as they discuss Arnold’s work on display in the Feature Gallery. A reception following dialogue is included in the ticket price. Cost: $15/$12 Museum Members; $18 at the door.
Chester Arnold: On Earth as It Is in Heaven is presented at the Nevada Museum of Art from August 14 through October 17, 2010 as part of the Museum’s wide-ranging Art + Environment Series, which provides timely, engaging, and rewarding educational opportunities for artists, scholars, and communities to engage with ideas pertinent to the intersections of art and environments. In 2009, the Museum launched the Center for Art + Environment, an international initiative that supports the practice, study, and awareness of creative interactions between people and the natural, built, and virtual environments. A book, published in conjunction with the exhibition, will be available in the Museum Store featuring essays by Ann M. Wolfe, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections and Colin M. Robertson, Curator of Education.