Arnold Mesches was born in the Bronx in 1923 and raised in Buffalo, New York. At the age of twenty, he set out for Los Angeles on a scholarship to the Art Center School. He later found work as a set illustrator on a Tarzan movie. The Hollywood unions went on strike, and along with coworkers, Mesches marched on the picket lines. He didn’t realize until much later that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had, around this time, opened a file on him (as they did on so many thousands), which targeted him as a subversive and possibly a communist. In 1984, after years of teaching and exhibiting in Los Angeles, Mesches moved to New York City. He taught at New York University, the Parsons School of Design, and Rutgers University, and exhibited extensively. In late 2002, he accepted a position as a professor at the University of Florida and moved to Gainesville, Florida.
Mesches’s political activism has defined his work for over half a century. In 1999, under the Freedom of Information Act, Mesches obtained his dossier from the FBI. It was a massive file of 786 pages that had been compiled from 1945 to 1972. While he wasn’t surprised to find reports about his participation in peace marches or demonstrations against Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was shocked to discover the minutiae of his daily life represented with such detail and accuracy: the kind of car he drove, the dates of birth of his children, the subjects he taught, and the fact that he showed a Czech film in one of his art classes. He came across a statement that he “must be a Communist” because he wore “a Communist uniform, paint-spattered jeans and a used jean jacket.” Unbeknownst to him all those years, people whom he considered his friends, as well as neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances, had been spying and informing on him. One student, an FBI agent, had used a hidden necktie camera to photograph him.
Of recent developments, Mesches writes:1
I don’t know any more about the NSA and Snowden than I read in the newspapers. I have a sneaking suspicion though, that in the years to come, Snowden, like Ellsberg before him, will be viewed as a hero, having alerted all us to our being spied upon. I do know about being spied on. The FBI had me under surveillance for over 26 years. In my series of collages and paintings The FBI Files [figs. 1–3], originally exhibited in 2002–3 at PS1, New York’s Museum of Modern Art affiliate, I compiled that personal history into contemporary illustrated manuscripts. I combined many of the 786 pages received from the Freedom of Information Bureau with images from the years I was shadowed. Now the spying is all-inclusive. In my new drawing project [figs. 4–5],2 individual faces merge into the many. I am spying with line. Hopefully, the lines will add up to an abstract, textural exploration of individuals becoming an inclusive “all.” It is my way of updating my personal files with the current situation.
By combining unlikely juxtapositions, both in painting techniques and disparate imagery, I have tried to re-create the sense of utter instability and sheer insanity that I feel has so often permeated my years. Instead of, as in my salad days, veering toward the overt, I have, for some years now, found myself depicting our time with a sense of unreality bordering on the more unsettling absurd.
When one insists upon taking social commentary and making it one’s source material, the temptation is to express one’s anger, to vent the fury of one’s reaction to the apparent injustices and continued bloodletting. But, personal anger can be a lonely futility. It never involves others. The world is more complex than this kind of one-sidedness.
Absurdity, as a concept, on the other hand, can transcend immediate frustration by asking the viewer to question, not only what they are seeing and feeling, but, more importantly, why they are questioning their awakened uneasiness. Hopefully, the dichotomy only increases when one is seduced by the richness of the painting’s surface and the enticing vividness of color; beauty as an art language to complement the darkness and humor. This is the core of my recent work.
Arnold Mesches, e-mail to Cultural Politics, June 2014.
The finished drawing Next in Line was shown together with a timely return exhibition of the original The FBI Files at the Life on Mars Gallery in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York, October–November 2014.