Artist Jean Arnold was in the Helper Hotel seven years ago, sketching people coming and going. The difficulty of sketching even the most cursory glimpse of them, besides underlining the differences between drawing and photography, triggered a multi-year experiment in the depiction of movement. Her current show at Philips Gallery in Salt Lake City, mostly paintings based on drawings she did while riding city buses, is the most recent result. I have rarely seen a bunch of paintings that so strongly demands engagement and that deals so plainly in the following simultaneities: sensual and cerebral, abstract and figural, planar and spatial, journalistic and subjective. My enjoyment of these paintings is multilayered: they are forthcoming enough that I feel a simple pleasure in their colors, shapes, and sense of space, but they are difficult enough that I feel compelled to make sense of them, to put my mind to them. They are well-painted and technically proficient, but never slick: so many of the lines are rendered in an in-the-moment, child-like calligraphy that I feel required to take each line seriously as the map of some thought or intention. They can read like straightforward abstracts, but they are right on the edge of figural depiction, right where my mind keeps trying to grab hold of something clear and intelligible. I am feeling pretty smug about this observation, that Arnold is painting in the margin between abstraction and representation, when I realize that the piece I’m looking at is called “Fool’s Errand”. It is clear that no single exegesis will be adequate for this body of work.
Not that Arnold is out to trip us up. Far from it. These paintings don’t have a hint of the passive-aggression, or contempt for the viewer or whatever it is, that so palpably lurks just under the paint in some Gerhard Richters and darker Chuck Closes, for example. And I don’t believe she’s indulging in the hide-and-seek games common in abstraction. Nor is there any lingering allegiance to ideas of flatness. My sense is that she is taking a third path through the thickets of abstraction: she seems to be abstracting because of the limits that her process imposes on her perception. In other words, abstraction isn’t something she has set out to do. It is not an agenda. It is what happens when she sketches modern American streetscapes through the window of a moving city bus. Billboards are bright and big because they are meant to be seen in glimpses, in a state of distraction, from moving vehicles. Just as naturally, the bright colors and as-though-glimpsedness of Arnold’s paintings are the result of seeing a broken, quickly-unfolding landscape from a moving vantage. As I understand them, these are paintings of what gets filtered out of our streetscapes by speed: if you don’t have time to focus as you speed by, you catch momentary glimpses of whatever is biggest and brightest and most riveting. Arnold often talks about Renaissance one-point perspective as a system of seeing and as the encapsulation of a cosmogony. There is a stretch of time implied in a Titian: he didn’t just catch a glimpse of blue crinoline on a passing beauty. He made a study of it. And later, at the height of the French Academy, representation became so idealized and suavely-rendered that one is cajoled into believing that art must be produced and received with infinite patience. The ideal is static. Arnold is as concerned with point of view as any neo-classical academic, but she is not seated in one unmoving place facing a stage-set of inert allegorical objects. She is almost flying by, seeing only what speed allows. The real, and our perceptions of it, are dynamic and fluid.
Sometimes, as in “Skytown,” amidst the flashing and blurring of roadside buildings, signs, and cars, between the sunny reflections off glass and mirrors, we see little, plain objects that caught her eye, such as what appear to be newspaper boxes and advertisements at center left. But most of what she sees is what newborns supposedly see: big, bright, flashy objects. I have come to see these paintings as being about speed per se: the ones that contain more of the little, pedestrian objects feel slower to me than the ones that show a preponderance of what I’m supposing are billboards and buildings and trucks and lights. Maybe the small objects in “Skytown” were sketched waiting for a light to change. I imagine “NightStreet,” the most pictorial [and, I think, weakest] image in the Philips show, was painted from a photograph [significantly not a sketch] taken while cruising a quiet residential neighborhood at 25 mph. On the other hand, “Sequestered” feels almost vertiginous, as though barely caught somewhere north of the speed limit. If I’m right, I think I have a case for abstraction being the natural result, in Arnold’s work, of going by in a hurry.
Years ago I got to spend an hour with a Frank Stella sketchbook. It was full of very loose, fast aperçus of common scenes: restaurants, subway stations, sidewalks. The sketches appeared to be attempts to capture the movements of people against a more or less fixed background. The result was a kind of disjointedness, like a more spontaneous cubism. Limbs stretch unnaturally, eyes appear twice on the same face, hands dash like a pianist’s across dinner plates, waiters appear to melt around diners in their hurry from kitchen to table. Most of the images were hard to interpret at all, I think because events were unfolding too fast to be recorded without also recording the speed itself, in the form of blur and distortion. Arnold is doing something similar, but crucially different: she sketches mostly stationary objects from a moving point of view. In her sketches, and in the paintings they later become, nothing is reliable, nothing is steady. Everything is dynamic. But perspective still holds. The human eye measures speed partly by gauging the movement of an object in front of a relatively static background. The farther something is from the viewer, the more static it appears. This sense of spatial depth is crucial to Jean’s paintings. Abstract though they are, they are emphatically, vertiginously spatial, eloquent rebuttals to the old Greenberg orthodoxies of flatness. The Italian Futurists painted speed more or less symbolically: their strong diagonals, leaning forms, and veering compositions meant speed, looked fast, but ultimately depended on a cartoonish sense of imbalance to represent speed. I believe Arnold has accomplished something far more sophisticated: she has mobilized color, spatial depth and tension, a cinematic simultaneity of layered objects, geometric torsion of almost-recognized objects, and a through-a-window-like all-overness to document speed. If the paintings had been mere snapshots showing the blur of passage, as has been attempted so many times in recent years by photographers-cum-painters, they would be attempting something easier and less interesting. Arnold has managed to capture speed as a painter.
But I should get back to what I like most about these paintings: they just keep giving. They reward repeated scrutiny, thus passing that old art-critical test established by John Ruskin back when speed first started altering art. Ever since I first saw one of Jean’s Umbrian hillside paintings [ripe with slowness!] about eight years ago I have been excited by her paintings’ ability to reward at a startling range of viewing distances. From the street through the gallery windows they are as riveting as an action movie, from ten paces they are gorgeous in their color and composition and weightiness/lightness. From three feet they have a tendency to capture my entire cone of vision -even the smaller paintings do this- as though I’d stuck my head out a window. The frame disappears. And from minimum focal length they show a lovely layering of reworked surfaces, calligraphic strokes, and translucent colors, all without fussiness. Most of them do this, and do it well. Some, [especially, I think, the larger paintings], accomplish this rare feat with a kind of open-eyed perceptiveness and intelligent clarity that makes them among the most rewarding paintings I’ve seen in years.
Van Lewis lives in Salt Lake City where he designs big houses to pay the bills. He studied architecture and history/criticism of art at MIT.
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