Rock stars can have rare moments of honesty when it comes to explaining why they became musicians in the first place. “To get chicks” is a frequent refrain. Artists will be a bit more dodgy on the subject, tending to offer loftier motives than merely wanting to paint naked bodies. I think they’re hedging their bets. When I was a wee lad of about eight years of age, my grandfather, noticing my incessant attempts to draw things, gave me a book that would alter the course of my life. It was one of those old Walter Foster how-to books called “Drawing in Charcoal with Charles LaSalle“. Within its pages were some gorgeous female nudes and fairly useless instructions on how to draw them. I knew, right away, that art was a path I would forever pursue. I’m still trying to unlearn some of the lessons in that book, but my affection for the classical nude in art has never waned. So yeah, I became an artist because I wanted to draw naked women. There, I said it.
Art history is overflowing with staggeringly beautiful depictions of the human body. Whether it’s Raphael’s centaurs, Manet’s Olympia, or any damn thing by Rubens, artists have striven endlessly to transcend the flesh by depicting it, with painstaking detail. Personally, I think most artists have a God complex, but that’s another story altogether. In recent years, the nude figure has suffered from the haughty weight given to modern movements such as abstract expressionism and, gasp, pop art. Classicism is practically scorned nowadays. Sure, plenty of artists still paint nudes, it’s just that precious few do it very well. There are maybe a handful of artists who, not only have the technical dexterity of the masters, but are also exploring the possibilities of the nude beyond the grand tradition. Three in particular come to mind, Nicola Verlato, Natalia Fabia, and Van Arno.
Van Arno, whose solo show “Ice Loves Rococo“ opened October 15th at CHG Circa, is operating on a level that’s hard to quantify. As you can tell by the title of the show, a tongue in cheek take on an E! Channel reality show, the man is partly a humorist who doesn’t take himself too seriously. On the other hand, his work so fully embraces tragedy, myth, symbolism, and classical technique that any laughter resulting may be nervous in nature. There is something completely unhinged about his work. Over the past decade or so, I’ve watched Van Arno hone his skills into a razor sharp instrument that cuts so clean, you don’t even notice you’re bleeding.
“Ice Loves Rococo” is a dazzling exhibit of satirical takes on late baroque art. The work is lush, sensual, and witty as all get out. He transforms the de rigueur Three Graces into elusive modern goddesses (Slick/Jones/Kelly) moshing amongst hummingbirds and squirrels. In Greek mythology, Gaia got around. Her various trysts ultimately led to the birth of very destructive titans and giants. Van Arno does a myth mash-up here with Venus and Mars in singular form, albeit with two heads, rushing in to save Gaia from herself. He pays loving homage to Goya, suggesting that perhaps we might reconsider him as the true father of Pop Art. The show’s muse, Coco replaces St. Theresa in a swirl of ecstatic flesh.
The tour de force however is the altarpiece titled Dee Dee Meets A Nurse That He Could Go For. Drawing inspiration from the Ramones song “Pinhead”, which itself was inspired by Todd Browning’s classic cult film “Freaks“, Van Arno plops Dee Dee Ramone into a pieta. The six foot triptych (or diptych when closed) itself was built by master carpenter Robert Borstrom. The front side Van Arno has guarded by nubile nurses and crowned by the Ramones’ iconic baseball bat and olive branch. Inside, Dee Dee is flanked by an adoring patient shaking free from a straight jacket to get to him on one side, and another swathed in bandages tossing him prescription pills on the other. At the center of it all, Liberty offers up a breast as Dee Dee just grins in a glue sniffing daze. At the base, whether the piece is open or closed, a sow nurses six piglets. Van Arno claims it’s a tribute to the nursing profession, but I detect a little commentary on hero worship as well.
Van Arno paints the body electric, and does so with great reverence, no matter the gender. You can cause yourself a lot of grief comparing anyone to Michelangelo, but I do think there is at least one connection to be drawn there. Both men’s work seem to hold that the spiritual and the sexual are intertwined, maybe even inseparable. I’m sure there are those who will find Van Arno’s work prurient. Some may find his twisted takes on well-worn biblical subjects blasphemous. You’ll get no argument from me. His art is both of those things, but that’s kind of what makes them great. I want my artists fearless, I want my nudes lascivious, and I want my dogma tested. If Stravinsky worried about rioting masses, he never would of composed “Rite Of Spring.”
“Ice Loves Rococo” runs through October 27th, 2012
8530-A Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
310 287 2345
P.S. As if Van Arno isn’t enough for you, just a few doors down, at the original Corey Helford Gallery, a couple of rambunctious Englishmen called The London Police are exhibiting their playful black and white surreal homages to man’s best friend!