Chuck Arnoldi: The Natural

Essay by Dave Hickey, 2008


“It’s something how the life will fall as to how the heart is tossed.”

—John Stewart, songwriter (1939–2008)


As my grandmother would say whenever the occasion presented itself, “It’s not right, but it’s so.” So, even though Charles Arnoldi, today, is a mature and profoundly innovative artist at the zenith of a thirty-year career, to the Venice Beach artists with whom his life and career has always been associated, he is still “the kid”—the d’Artagnan of the Venice Musketeers, prone to spontaneous acts of profound innocence, generosity, enthusiasm and aesthetic impropriety. He shares with them a passion for the material world and a commitment to unflagging studio production; he shares their comfort level with the business of the art business and with the insouciance of California social life. But he’s still “the kid.” Like Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode and Billy Al Bengston he is a refugee from the flat banality of the American Middle West, from the concrete grids of streets called Elm and Jefferson punctuated with Circle K’s and hardware stores. Like them, he came to Los Angeles to be a commercial artist and fell among evil companions.


Worse even than being “the kid,” however, Arnoldi is also “a natural,” has always been “a natural,” has always been told that he was, in fact, “a natural.” As Robert Rauschenberg (who should know) once explained to him, once you are regarded as “a natural,” no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you struggle and sacrifice, people will always think it’s easy for you. And, in a sense it is, since work is not labor. “Naturals,”  Rauschenberg told me once, have “smart bodies, smart hands and smart eyes.” This, however, doesn’t mean that they don’t have smart minds, as well. It just means you can’t sort out the fields of intuition after the fact. “We used to call that talent,” Bob said, “but that’s too positive a word these days.” Henry James said much the same thing when he observed that ideas are the food of art, which, in “the art of ideas,” remains mostly undigested.


So “naturals” resign themselves to silence. Other artists get credit for their thought and dedication, “naturals” get credit for their facility, the bête noire of artists like Arnoldi, Cy Twombly, Ellsworth Kelly, George Condo and Rauschenberg himself. Damned by presumption of facility, the art of “naturals” defies pedagogy and is resisted by pedagogues. The mind and body working together resists the analysis of the mind alone, and in an art world where pedagogy reigns, the clearest, cleanest work is routinely overlooked. One can “learn” things from Damien Hirst. What one learns from Charles Arnoldi is that he can do it, and you can’t. Or, even more dangerously, in the eyes of other artists: he did it and you didn’t.


My best example of this phenomenon comes from the years 1981 to 1992, during which Arnoldi made an evolving series of 192 Chainsaw painting-drawing-sculptures created by laminating stacks of plywood—some painted, some not—into thick rectangles, then cutting away lines and spaces with a chainsaw, using the tool as a draughtsman might use an oil stick but also as a sculptor might use a chisel, revealing the patterned layers of wood beneath with every stroke. Sometimes the chainsaw cut through to the wall. Sometimes it just drew. Sometimes Arnoldi painted before cutting. Sometimes Arnoldi painted afterwards in blobs and gestures. All of these works were at once brutal and magically elegant. The artists who saw them, including the artists with whom I saw them, were without exception stunned. They were admiring at first of Arnoldi’s fiat, then almost immediately they were jealous, then mad as hell, then crazy with self-reproach. Arnoldi had thought of it; they hadn’t, and this idea, which was exhaustive in its ruthless simplicity and outrageous in its consequent complexity, had been done. There was nothing to add, nothing to do, nothing to change, nothing to learn and no avenue in or out.


Moreover, in the aesthetics of the moment, these chainsaw works simultaneously acknowledged and repudiated the reigning ambience of California art. In the manner of Andy Warhol, Arnoldi got it “exactly wrong.” He took the cutting, laminating and painting procedures of surfboard manufacture and outrageously reversed their aesthetic. Even so, the memory of the board remained as a testament to Arnoldi’s boisterous transgression and to his status as “a natural.” So, in my own little mythology, I have always attributed three aspects of Arnoldi’s work to his being “a natural.” First I imagine him saying to himself early on, “Hell, if I’m a natural, why not go natural? Why not abandon all this lumber, acrylic, plastic and resin? Why not collect some goddamned burnt sticks? Also, if I’m such a natural, why don’t I do the hardest thing to do in the hardest way to do it? This will disguise my facility, except when I get it right, then, of course, I will just be a natural again. Also, if I’m such “a natural” if I’m just “the kid,” why not be the “black sheep” as well? Why not send the whole California cool thing straight up? Celebrate the elegance of the abject? Where does it say I can’t learn anything from Jasper Johns, or Jackson Pollock or Bobby Rauschenberg?”


Out of an internal dialogue of this sort and the happenstance of a burnt orchard raided by art students for leftover fruit, Arnoldi’s Stick paintings came into fruition. While all of his friends were scavenging fruit, Arnoldi found himself beguiled by the burnt trees and sticks. They looked like charcoal line drawings, although not particularly good ones. Taken to the studio and assembled, however, one could make persuasive drawings with no paper or canvas support and this seemed like a pretty good idea. So, much to the bewilderment of his foraging comrades, Arnoldi started collecting sticks. He took them back to his studio and began making Stick drawings or paintings, transforming the corniest, most old-fashioned aspect of art education—“mark-making with charcoal”—into something rich and strange.


At the moment of Arnoldi’s first Stick paintings, the art world could be said to have had a surfeit of stick-art, none of it very interesting, emanating from northern California, the Mountain West and other venues where the Native American medicine-bundle had a certain hippy-liberal panache. Arnoldi’s sticks were nothing like these. They bore with them no “homage to nature” but rather homage to the fact that what nature aspires to and always fails to achieve—symmetry, right angles and straight lines—art can casually disdain. Nature aspires to symmetry, in other words. Art begins with symmetry and mounts a rhetoric of dissent against it that is more social and rebellious than pagan. So there was nothing of the primitive about Arnoldi’s sticks. Everything that could be done to mitigate their dishabille was done. They were carefully chosen, exquisitely nuanced, meticulously joined and deftly composed according the argument of the eye.


As a result, the effect of encountering Arnoldi’s Stick paintings was a little like becoming civilized. First one saw the sticks and thought nature. Then gradually the ambience of the natural world dropped away as the nuance and balance of cultural decision-making asserted itself and brought the natural gestures together into an harmonious whole, part drawing, part sculpture, part painting and nothing accidental beyond the residue of nature redeemed. Thinking back on these works from the perspective of the present, it’s hard to deny that Arnoldi, almost instinctively, selected the most arduous and subtle way imaginable to make difficult, sophisticated, late-twentieth-century art. The works still hold their presence, however, and today it’s easier to see the narrow ridgeline Arnoldi rode to make these objects, aging expressionists to the right, hippy nature-worshippers to the left and not much space between.


Arnoldi will tell you today that it is all there in the Stick paintings, all the accoutrements of his hardheaded propensity for doing everything the hard way, by himself and every day. Most prominently, the idea of “putting things together”—the rhetoric of “parts and wholes”—has remained an aspect of Arnoldi’s practice, and for this he is more indebted to the New York post-minimalists than to anyone in California. The logic of this putting-things-together, however, is Arnoldi’s own. He needs to “do something” in the studio, then “do something else,” as Jasper Johns describes the process. This doing something for Arnoldi requires his full physical participation—smart body, smart hands, smart eyes and smart mind putting things together, nuancing their relationships, deciding about the color and just how big this damn thing is supposed to be.


The defining attribute of this process and of the Stick paintings themselves is, specifically, the idea of the armature—skeleton of the imagination—the archeological lynchpin of physical thought. With an armature one is free to move on, move back, elaborate or refine. Amidst all the permutations of sculpture, painting, drawing and assemblage that Arnoldi has created over the years, the armature is the single constant; the grouping of parts, the assembly of separate entities made new by pattern, angle, division, balance and interaction. And it’s a kid’s idea, of course, a kind of recurring utopia that can be achieved again and again but only by a natural. In a West Coast culture of unitary objects, hard singular spirits and autonomous ideas—one block of resin, one slab of board, one wonky piece of clay, one floating word or one glistening insignia—the kid created societies. He has imagined these societies coming together in riotous extravagance. To achieve this act of the imagination, Arnoldi has always had the intrinsic courtesy to treat the gigantic, human infestation of Southern California as if it were a civilization—a messy one, of course, but even so, what a concept!