The epic career of Bronx-born, Florida-based painter Arnold Mesches, 90, spans six decades in the studio and over 100 solo exhibitions, including the latest, “Arnold Mesches: A Life’s Work,” on view at the Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower (through May 4). The exhibition showcases 13 series of works, from his first painting (1945) to his “Shock and Awe” series, completed last year.
Mesches focuses on marginalized and forgotten characters. Acrobats, waiters and busboys, martyrs and demonic animals are all set against opaque voids and elegant, empty Baroque spaces. Mesches’s nightmarish visions of the modern world are articulated with dense fields of vividly colored brushstrokes. They are theaters of the surreal, grotesque and absurd, lamenting and satirizing society’s elite and the horrors of human cruelty.
Born in the Bronx in 1923, Mesches was raised in Buffalo and received a scholarship to the Art Center School of Los Angeles in 1943. In the 40’s and 50’s, he was a set artist in Hollywood. As a civil and human rights activist, he was considered a “person of interest” by the FBI, and was under surveillance for 26 years. He later reclaimed his own FBI file and created a personal chronology by collaging federal documents, sketches and vintage photographs. He maintains studios in Gainesville, Fla. and Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife, novelist Jill Ciment. He talked by phone with A.i.A. this week about his methods and sources.
SHANA MASON There’s a sort of “dance with death” sensation in your works. I see this especially in Weather Patterns , which shows acrobats, chariot riders and waiters going about their business, unaware of a ferocious storm behind them.
ARNOLD MESCHES Weather Patterns, to me, is about the precariousness of the time we’re living in. Much of my work all these years is about the troubled times I’ve lived through. From the time I was two years old, all I ever heard about was war. But I try to deal with these things as metaphors rather than overt statements.
MASON It’s as if the worlds you create, like the Ringerbearer & Flower Girl  and Bride & Bridesmaid  are glimpses of a psyche on the verge of collapse: lonely dresses on mannequins placed in gaping, empty rooms dimly lit by magnificent chandeliers.
MESCHES Yes, it’s apocalyptic. It’s also about how greed and opulence dominated so much of my life. That’s one of many of such paintings that were done. The one in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Three Chandeliers , the one with the busboy and the chickens: they’re about class, as well. The chandelier becomes a natural icon for greed. I also used ornate frames as a necessary element, beautiful as it is.
MASON And your work has dealt with social responsibility to a great degree throughout your career.
MESCHES Correct. I go on tangents, as well. The “Paint” series [2008-10] is a tangent. I wanted to talk about the world of painting and the world of art, and my love of painting, my love of art. That was a tangent from paintings treating social conditions, although I did use Goya and [El] Greco and so on, people who I really love.
MASON How do you make ghosts, chopped-up mannequins, voids, massacres and natural disasters look beautiful?
MESCHES The world is full of beauty, despite all the complexities and all the fears. I try to make the beauty in the form, the texture and the brushwork so it’s not all dark. The world isn’t all dark.
PHOTO: Arnold Mesches: Shock and Awe 2, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 50 by 75 inches.