Featuring works by Nica Acquino, Joseph Carrillo, Jeff Frost, Anita Getzler, David Hollen, Jason Jenn, Ibuki Kuramochi, Rosalyn Myles, Vojislav Radovanović, Alison Ragguette, and Kayla Tange.
Art and spirituality have been intertwined since their origins. Sanctuary of the Aftermath affirms the sacred role of art and redefines the gallery as a place to experience solace during troubled times. The exhibition presents artworks demonstrating a strong spiritual component in their creation while addressing some of the challenges of contemporary existence. Site-specific installation art, video art, and auditory art are highlighted within an immersive atmosphere, which invites safe engagement to explore the issues and make personal discoveries.
After our prolonged period of physical separation and quarantine, the exhibition investigates how art can create new channels for connection. Hailing from diverse backgrounds, the exhibition artists take inspiration from various timeless practices and historical approaches. They employ meditative, introspective, interactive, and sometimes visionary techniques in pursuit of the numinous. During a time of intense socio-political injustice, environmental disaster, rapid technological changes, prolonged physical isolation, and anxiety — art can be a remedy.
STUART TIMMONS’ CITY OF WEST HOLLYWOOD LGBTQ IMMERSIVE HISTORY TOUR
The popular tour is back – this time as a virtual tour you can experience from any location! It was a pleasure directing and designing the tour between 2015-2017, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to recreate and reimagine the event for an era of prolonged social distancing! We’re going to have fun exploring the sensational, sordid, and surprising LGBTQ history of WeHo – and this time, EVERYONE’S INVITED TO JOIN IN!
Hank Willis Thomas needs to be a household name in the realm of contemporary art. I trust it will be soon, thanks to an impressive body of prescient works in recent years that address some of the weightiest subjects we face today. Thomas is a conceptual artist who reframes pop-cultural and historical imagery with a clean, clear graphic aesthetic that tackles themes like racial injustice, gender and racial inequality, gun violence, and corporate branding. There is no mistaking his message’s intent when it’s delivered with such stunning, visceral results.
I experienced a wide breadth of his work in Portland Art Museum’s exhibition All Things Being Equal…, his first major museum mid-career survey just before the pandemic outbreak in January of 2020. Thomas’ principal medium for expression is photography (he received his BFA and MFA in Photography –and his mother is a professional photographer with her own acclaimed career). However, in the past 25 years, he has created an eclectic body of work, including sculpture, mixed media, installation, video, and participatory performances. He also works on various interactive and collaborative projects to inspire public conversations about social justice and civil rights.
One of the first works on view was an immersive installation that created a shrine-like circle of long, dark blue banners embroidered with 14,719 stars evoking the American Flag, referencing thenumber of people shot and killed by gunfire in the United States in 2018. The work reflects one of the most shocking statistics of American culture that continually avoids being addressing by serious solutions. Thomas experienced a devastating loss firsthand. In 2000, his cousin (also his roommate and best friend) was killed by gunfire in a robbery outside a nightclub in Philadelphia. Like most of his works, he finds a way to resonate with everyone because he deals with such culturally pervasive issues.
“But all you have to be is alive in America and you can fall victim to gun violence.”
– Hank Willis Thomas
Thomas uses the language and design of advertising to communicate his message – he does not go for vague or subtle, and he does not pull his punches. He frequently explores how commercial/consumer brands exploit and profit from stereotypical images of the black experience.
He frequently critiques commercial sports, and in recent years it has become more apparent how the industry can use black men while being indifferent and hypocritical to racial issues. In his series B®anded, Thomas transforms the iconic Nike swoosh logo into a literal brand scarring the bodies, referencing the branding of slaves by their owners. He created quilted versions of Picasso’s Guernica and Matisse’s The Fall of Icarus, made out of bright, colorful familiar sports jerseys from teams like the Lakers and Knicks. It forces the viewer to question how the ideas of war and sacrifice in the original works relate to the challenges faced by professional athletes and the conditions they must endure to entertain the masses.
His sculptural work takes iconic imagery from historical photographs, isolating the most potent elements that stood out for him and transposing them into three-dimensional works that crop out everything but the essential focus. The results are chilling and monumental.
While nothing compares to the reality of visiting a museum in person, digital media becomes even more critical during shelter-at-home. The Cincinnati Art Museum created a gorgeous exhibition video walk-through, narrated by Thomas that is worth checking out:
Art provides many functions in contributing to the overall health of a community, including the thoughtful critique of its various systems and institutions. It can reflect the harsh realities of complex situations and offer up a new vision of possibility. That’s part of what makes the works of Alex Donis, like Officer Moreno and Joker among my all-time favorites. Donis is known for his portrayals of peaceful, playful comradery and/or love between typically historical adversaries. It’s a beautiful, timeless concept; imagining what could be if humanity could set aside their differences.
However, transforming enemies into friends and lovers is a daunting task – as we surely understand in this day and age. The concept is easier said than done, and easier portrayed in art than actualized in reality. But the hope and effort to make it possible matters. It’s only by pushing the cultural boundaries of expectations that we make progress and expand our collective understanding, but there’s often a lot of push-back. The creation and exhibition of such artwork can attract a lot of ire in the process of sharing.
Since “toppling societies’ conventional attitudes…influenced by a tri-cultural (Pop, Latin and Queer) experience” is part of his artistic statement, Donis is no stranger to controversy in his career. His exhibitions have often been subject to vandalism and/or threats. His 1997 exhibition at Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco portrayed iconic same-sex figures kissing each other, like that of Che Guevara with Cesar Chavez and popstar Madonna with Mother Theresa. The installation was vandalized twice within two weeks of its opening. In 2001, his exhibition WAR at the Watts Tower Arts Center was pulled down/censored a mere three days after its opening by the LA City Cultural Affairs Department when members of the Watts community threatened vehement protest. The gay thematic tones coupled with the tense history of gun violence hit a sensitive spot in its depiction of LAPD officers engaged in same-sex dance poses with gang members. It’s hard to know which of the two controversial issues was more difficult for the community to see on view in the art, but one can certainly speculate.
Twenty years later, Donis’ works are as relevant as ever. They remind me what it could be like if more people in the world were lovers, not fighters. Dancing certainly looks more fun.
“My work for many years has been to understand hatred in society and how, as an artist, to dissolve it by bridging vast social divides.” – Alex Donis (WAR Press Release, September 27, 2001)
After the shocking events of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol Riots, I compiled this highlight list of facts about the Art of the Capitol for the Torrance Art Museum. This personally helped bring some peace of mind to reflect upon the art rather than the domestic terror and political ramifications of that day – and I think you’ll also enjoy find out some fascinating details about some of the over 300 works of art it contains.
All eyes have been keenly upon the US Capitol since the shocking events of Jan 6, 2021, and the ramifications of it all are yet to be seen. It’s worthy of note that in addition to the building as the seat of Congress, it houses a collection of over 300 historical works of art. This edition of Please Don’t Touch the Art includes links to various articles and resources to explore more.
ARCHITECT OF THE CAPITOL
TheArchitect of the Capitolstaff preserves and maintains the historic buildings, monuments, art and inspirational gardens on the Capitol campus. They have a great deal of information on each work accessible online here:
A detailed assessment of damage caused to those works is still underway, but it appears that some of the most significant works did not suffer any serious harm. For more about that process, read:
There’s been a lot of buzz about some of photographs from the riots relating in some manner to events within the works of art portrayed at the Capitol. National Geographic recently posted this article by an art curator that details some of those uncanny connections.
Recently, the removal of controversial art at the Capitol made the news as efforts are being made to include more Black, Indigenousand People of Color in the Capitol collection, particularly among the statuary.
The Hall of Statues features 100 statues (two from each state). In December 2020, Virgina removed the confederate general (and notable insurrectionist) Robert E. Lee and is replacing it with a statue of Barbara Johns, a civil rights pioneer.
While located in the Hall of Statues, a statue of Rosa Parks is historically significant as being the first full-length statue of an African American person in the U.S. Capitol. Recently it made the news as some troops brought in to defend the capitol posed for pictures with her.
The Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol is where the most eminent citizens are given the honor to lay in state. The dome ceiling features a very Zeus-like image of George Washington surrounded by 13 female figures that represent the 13 original states/colonies and Greek gods along the side.
The Statue of Freedom (originally titled Freedom Triumphant Over War and Peace and also known as Armed Freedom) rests atop the U.S. Capitol. While not as well known as the Statue of Liberty, this icon of Columbia (the personification of America) shares an equally iconic pose. Of note is her military helmet adorned with stars, and an eagle’s head and plume. She wears a Native American blanket strewn across her shoulder.
It was designed by American sculptor Thomas Crawford at a studio in Rome and shipped as 5 plaster pieces in the mid 1800’s to the United States where it was to be cast in bronze. Interestingly, it was the work of a slave, Philip Reid, who helped make it possible to properly create and install the final version. By the time The Statue of Freedom was raised atop the Capitol dome in December 1862, Reid had been declared a free man after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation executive order in September 22, 1862.
For more about the history – watch:
THE TINY DOORS
The Capitol building features a series of tiny, odd-looking doors in the walls, which actually house a unique engineering achievement by Captain Montgomery Cunningham Meigs. He helped design the Washington Aquaduct, an elaborate system that brought fresh water from the Potomac River throughout the capitol in response to a terrible fire in the Library of Congress that tragically destroyed 35,000 volumes on Christmas Eve 1851. It’s a fascinating history explained here:
Finally, it should come as no surprise that the most featured figure in the art collection is George Washington.
limbs seeds circle danceis a video art work about the desire to connect to the natural world in an ever-increasingly disjointed society. Special effects technology allows contemporary artists to become modern-day wizards. There is a contradiction in how cultural advances can also isolate and distance us. The central figure casts a spell in a grove of urban trees, making multiple images of himself in his mind’s eye that emerge like tree nymphs, but they are odd, uncoordinated creations which ultimately fade away like a hallucination in the confusing blur and dream of life. It is part of a series of videos works with a meditative aim, inviting the viewer to slow down and let the imagery wash over them in a manner that is subversive in its intentional serenity.
I’m excited to premiere the work as part of The L.A. Mise-En-Scène Video Art Festival, featuring over 30 video art works by artists from LA and around the world curated by L.A. Art Documents (Vojislav Radovanović and myself). The festival runs from September 1-20 as part of MAIDEN LA. Each week a new Tarot Card Reading is presented, featuring 10 different videos. limbs seeds circle dance is paired with the Magician card in Tarot’s Major Arcana and takes place in Tarot Reading 2 from Sept 8-14.
Here’s my fourth Staff Pick essay written for the Torrance Art Museum.
I have a confession to make: when I went to see the exhibition Meet Me At the Center of the Earth, by the artist Nick Cave, I totally thought that the rock and roll frontman of the Bad Seeds had somehow ventured into the visual art world. I’m at least relieved to know from talking to others that I wasn’t alone in my confusion of the two, nor am I the only one to be immediately captivated by the artist’s imaginative and playful fusion of assemblage, fashion, sculpture and performance art. It’s one of the few occasions where even though while on vacation, I nabbed up one of the heavy photographic tomes for sale in spite knowing I would have to travel around with that extra weight. I simply had to keep examining his body of work for hours after the visit.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Nick Cave’s creations. Cave’s experiences as a dancer with Alvin Ailey come into play watching how they move both in a studio or out in the world in various locations. The Soundsuits in particular are full of life whether viewed in action while worn by a performer or when simply standing still displayed on a mannequin. The eye of the beholder is constantly engaged in its own dance as it takes in each piece, full of intricacies, layers and new surprises.
The Soundsuits are composed from a wide variety of materials, such as buttons, beads, yarn, feathers, hair, fabric, fur, fake flowers, old toys, household items, discarded objects, etc. Cave combines and transforms everyday objects into breathtaking creations. They take inspiration from African art traditions and various ceremonial dresses and armor, with visual similarities to some Mardi Gras Indian suits and nods to the outlandish fashion and living sculptures of artist Leigh Bowery (another favorite of mine). The Soundsuits astutely bend the principles of haute-couture fashion, allowing Cave to utilize his childhood background repairing hand-me-down clothing alongside his fine arts degree and studio practice. The Soundsuits completely morph the wearer obscuring their identity – age, gender, color, body shape – are all hidden from the beholder as part of the artist’s intention to do so. He wants the viewer to look without judgment or prejudice.
The origins of Cave’s Soundsuits come from a social tragedy that is still hauntingly relevant: the brutality witnessed during the Rodney King beatings by the LAPD in 1992.
“I started thinking about myself more and more as a black man – as someone who was discarded, devalued, viewed as less than. I started thinking about the role of identity, being racially profiled, feeling devalued, less than, dismissed. And then I happened to be in the park this one particular day and looked down at the ground, and there was a twig. And I just thought, well, that’s discarded, and it’s sort of insignificant. And so I just started then gathering the twigs, and before I knew it, I was, had built a sculpture.” – Nick Cave,
From that initial twig and wire Soundsuit, Cave has gone on to create over 500 Soundsuit creations across the world. He often works with various non-profits, social groups and community organizations, guiding others in a process of making their own creations based on found objects within the region. These workshops become powerful community resources, and are in line with the inherent ceremonial and shamanic potentials within the shapeshifting Soundsuits. He’s a great example of using art and creativity to heal and transform pain within a community and to bring people together for a social cause. We can take inspiration from his body of work to help creatively navigate and address the ongoing wave of contemporary social issues.
Here’s my third Staff Pick essay written for the Torrance Art Museum:
Government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has experienced controversy since its creation in 1965, and the recent allocation of $75 million to the NEA placed in the Covid-19 relief package once again stirred up some animosity toward the program. As both an artist and art-lover, I appreciate the recognition of the arts for federal relief during this time of crisis, yet find it still not enough. After all, the arts in general contributed $877 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017 with over 5 million people employed within the arts and culture sector earning $405 billion. The war operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq have created $6.4 trillion of financial obligations/debt. So is $75 million dollars in crisis aid to fund the arts really worth raising a fuss over? Putting aside the immeasurable cultural value and the numerous scientific studies that show how important the arts are for mental development, those financial figures alone should satisfy opposition to a proportionately small amount of money compared to what the arts delivers to the economy. Unfortunately it does not.
The ongoing battle over funding the arts in this country reminds me of the infamous NEA Four case in the early 90’s. The NEA Four is the group name given to four performance artists (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller) who were originally granted NEA awards only to have them revoked by congressman and NEA Chair John E. Frohnmeyer after congress (spearheaded by Jesse Helms) passed a “decency clause” as criteria for the government to judge works. The four artists sued the government for wrongly turning down their grants. While the artists won their case in district court, it ultimately worked its way to the Supreme Court in 1998, which ruled that the government’s decency clause does not interfere with artist’s first amendment rights. The NEA had already had its funding severely cut by Congress, but after the court decision they did away with funding to individual artists altogether.
Sadly the biggest victims of all in the ongoing battle against NEA funding and the so-called “Culture Wars”, are not artists like those of the NEA Four, but the citizens of the United States who live in small, rural communities in great need of funding and access to the arts in general.
As a rural teenager at the time, I was slightly aware of the significance of the controversy as it made national news. Impressions formed in my mind by the events profoundly affected my own appreciation (or lack of appreciation in some cases) towards performance art – in my mind, and perhaps many others, it would be permanently connected with “indecent”. The NEA Four situation came shortly after other enormously public controversies surrounding the NEA funding of money; $35K towards an exhibition which included the homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and another $10K award to visual artist Andres Serrano who made Piss Christ (a photo of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine). Going to battle over a small amount of tax payer money being used towards such indecent works of art made for a good distraction from money spent on wars (an estimated $61 Billion for 1990’s Gulf War).
So just what was deemed indecent about the NEA Four? For the sake of brevity I shall limit my description of each performances to one sentence, which is rather like showing a one inch square section of 6’ X 8’ canvas painting. Karen Finley created a performance called “We Keep Our Victims Ready”, which involved stripping to the waist and describing sexual assault while smearing chocolate on her body ending with a poem about social isolation and the AIDS crisis. John Fleck’s work “Blessed are the Little Fishes” dealt with concepts of faith and religious authority, and involved an onstage toilet prop and live urination. Holly Hughes’ performance of “World Without End” served as a memorial to her mother, with concepts about the battle of the sexes, her father’s abusiveness, fast food culture and growing up in the suburbs. Tim Miller’s works focused on AIDS activism, challenged the Reagan Administration and medical institutions for contributing to the enormous death toll, and often involved a portion of time with the artist naked.
One of the purposes of performance art is the unfolding of visuals and themes over time, allowing for viewers to process information and develop various thoughts and emotions about the work. Performance art is an experience that cannot be easily condensed or simply described, much in the way that words cannot replicate the visuals of a work of graphic art. There were many reviews from audiences who actually experienced the NEA Four’s works, that said the performances helped provide catharsis, acting as a communal therapy of sorts – an invaluable process that cannot be measured or easily replicated by other methods. I know for many peers viewing performance art is their church, and experiencing such works evokes similar feelings to a religious rite or ceremony, which many conservatives support.
There is no question in my mind that the quickly enacted “decency law” of Congress in 1990 and the repeal of NEA funding was a thinly veiled attempt to silence LGBT activism and the complicated issues which the AIDS crisis brought up. Three of the NEA Four artists identified as LGBT and the fourth dealt with AIDS issues and sexual assault. There is a reason the motto Silence Equals Death was created. To censor such works of art as those of the NEA Four was a masked attempt to erase the opportunity for community healing and avoid dealing with the elements which plague society. It’s not a difficult stretch to see parallels with how the Nazi regime censored work they labeled Degenerate art.
Some felt that the amount of attention garnered by the NEA Four during the process ought to have been good for their careers, as there is no such thing as bad press except no press at all. It should be noted that along with the attention, the NEA Four received cancelled performances, hate mail, phone calls, and death threats by people who never actually experienced their work in person; just its labeling as “indecent” by some members of Congress.
I do so enjoy beautiful, satisfyingly simple and seductive works of art, but I am equally capable of recognizing the immense value in complicated and controversial works of art that challenge our perceptions of the world. One doesn’t have to like a work of art to be capable of appreciating it. Performance art can be a powerful vehicle for expression, to hold a mirror up to society, illuminate important issues that need attention, and reshape our perspective. What constitutes “indecent” in one viewer’s mind may be the exact emotional undercurrent another person is feeling that needs to be expressed. As the world grows ever more populated and problems mount, there are more and more festering wounds, which art has the potential to heal in ways not capable by any other means – if we give artists and arts organizations the opportunity and appropriate amount of funding to do so.
It should be noted that the NEA was originally created along with the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965 under Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to help improve the quality of life for Americans, particularly those in impoverished communities. They were formed during the era of the cold war space race, and there was a growing imbalance in the emphasis on the sciences – humanities and the arts needed some help in order to contribute to LBJ’s vision of The Great Society.
Here’s another Staff Picks essay that I wrote for the Torrance Art Museum – as we continue to create personal essays about the art/artists that we enjoy and have influenced us. I think it’s a lovely way to deal with the quarantine and offer a glimpse into what various aesthetics that shape our staff. For my second artist, I chose Ana Mendieta – read below or visit the post directly on the Torrance Art Museum website.
Like many people, especially those raised in a small rural community in Iowa as I was, my early appreciation of art could be described as conservative, influenced more by Hollywood movies, television, commercial cultural aesthetics, and the more recognizable names of the art establishment before the 1960’s. It was during my studies at the University of Iowa liberal arts college that I became exposed to more conceptual/avant-garde work, but as a theatre and film major my perception of contemporary visual art was still rather narrow. A few touring shows by “big name” performance artists and an understudy class in intermedia arts left me scratching my head and unimpressed by the genre overall. However, that would change through an unusual and unexpected opportunity to take a graduate level course led by Professor Hans Breder, the founder of the University’s Intermedia Program in 1968. His introduction to the “earth-body”/Silueta artworks made in Iowa by Ana Mendieta, his student and dear friend, spoke to me on a profoundly personal level that I recognize as helping propel my journey toward understanding the relevancy, impact and importance that performance and conceptual art can possess beyond more traditional art practices.
Mendieta was a Cuban immigrant, sent to live in Dubuque, Iowa in 1961 at age 12 as part of Operation Peter Pan, a program operated by the US government and Catholic charities to secretly help children escape the Castro regime (her father was a political prisoner of Cuba for 18 years for his involvement in the Bay of Pigs). Likely due to the various language issues she experienced and being bounced around foster homes, she developed a love of art as a means of expression. She received both her BA and MFA from the University of Iowa, becoming fascinated by the local avant-garde community and a fascination with the rolling hills and natural landscapes of Iowa. She developed a strong spiritual connection and relationship with nature that she expressed in her art. Displaced from her homeland, she recognized that creating a tie to the earth wherever she was allowed her to feel whole again.
“Through my earth/body sculptures, I become one with the earth … I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body. This obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is really the reactivation of primeval beliefs … [in] an omnipresent female force, the after image of being encompassing within the womb, is a manifestation of my thirst for being.” 1
Today, Mendieta is recognized as a pioneer in the genres of land art, body art, and performance art – combining them in various ways and documenting the works with photography and film. Natural elements were her primary tools – blood, mud, wood, water, fire. Some of the results may seem obvious today, but were ground-breaking and pushed the envelope during their time and influenced many artists to follow. Some of her works were violent, addressing her concerns with violence towards and the rape of women, particularly in response to the murder of a woman on campus that sent shock waves through the city. In the late 70’s she moved to NYC and joined the Artists In Residence Inc (A.I.R. Gallery), but after a few years helping with the administration of the all-female cooperative gallery, left the group commenting “American Feminsim as it stands is basically a white middle class movement.” 2
It is tragic she died so early in a promising career at the age of 36, when she fell out her apartment window to her death. Some believe the act was perpetrated on purpose by minimal artist Carl Andre, with whom she had a turbulent marriage, but he was later acquitted of the murder charges. Her life was cut short, but her legacy lives on to inspire future generations.
Mendieta is not a household name, but her body of work pervades the art world in various ways and I have been happy to come across various Silueta pieces in several exhibitions in both the US and Europe over the years. Seeing them instantly aligns me to my roots as an Iowan, a performance artist, and a child of the planet Earth, fulfilling her intentions of creating a connection. Examining the various ways in which she create impressions of her body upon the earth, takes on many levels and layers of meaning. Each time I revisit the works, I discover something new – they speak to something different inside me based upon my feelings and experiences of the time. Her documentation presents to the world the remains of a performance – of an act which was intimately created between herself and the natural world. The photo documentation becomes a memorial and a celebration of the way a life lived creates an impression upon the environment. They harken back to primal instincts and as we continue to live so removed and isolated from the earth it becomes so necessary to remind us how the bond comes in many forms. The photos record a ritual, sharing a window into a personal process that becomes universal through its relationship to the cycles of life and death, a reminder where we all came from and will all return.
1 Quote: Ramos, E. Carmen (2014). our america. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
2 Quote: Butler Schwartz, Cornelia Alexandra (2010). Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. p. 389.
As part of Torrance Art Museum’s work to provide online resources to replace live exhibitions during the COVID-19 pandemic, each member of the Staff (I am their Outreach Specialist) is writing personal essays about works of art and artists that have influenced their own aesthetic.
I chose as my first essay to write about the incredible work of Steven Arnold and the photograph he took of my performance art mentor Rachel Rosenthal. I invite you to read about it – either at the Torrance Art Museum website or in the blog below.
At the grand opening of Centre Pompidou’s 2006 exhibition “Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital”, I was immediately captivated by the power and intimacy of the black and white photography of Steven Arnold. While he was an unknown to me, I would discover just how great, albeit quiet his influence upon the general culture and my life had already been. The exploration of mysticism, archetypes and queer aesthetics through his elaborately composed scenarios using recycled materials and an eclectic mix of found items that combine photography, body painting and assemblage art continues to resonate vividly with my own work and that of many creative peers.
At the Pompidou, I would discover that Arnold had taken the iconic portrait of his friend and my mentor, performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, in angel wings that was on view in the front window of her office and performance studio. I had always admired the image, but never knew the whole story of its creator. More invested in his artistic output and act of creation than any formal career recognition, Steven Arnold died of AIDS in 1994, leaving his estate in the hands of friend Stephanie Farago, whom was in attendance at the Pompidou opening and championing a new book of his works and aiming to create a documentary film with the extensive archives she kept in Hawaii. That film is now an inspiring reality, narrated by Angelica Houston, called Steven Arnold: Heavenly Bodies which premiered in 2019 at MOCA as part of LA’s LBGTQ Film Festival, OUTFEST. It was directed by Vishnu Dass, a young man with a fascinating story of his own, who is carrying forward the late Farago’s mission of bringing Arnold to greater recognition and the archive’s move to NYC. When Arnold knew he was dying, he spent all his time and energy in his few final years merely shooting images of his models and creations, without developing or printing – and now, thanks to a resurgence of interest and the funding of various artistic institutions, never before seen work is now surfacing.
Arnold got his start as a student of film at the San Francisco Art Institute, where just before graduation in 1968, he premiered his critically successful student art film at the nearby Palace Theatre at midnight alongside works of Man Ray and Georges Méliès. This led to Arnold hosting a regular series of midnight art house and cult film screenings called the Nocturnal Dreamshow, which in turn would become a film phenomenon in urban centers nationally known as Midnight Movies. It also spawned a hippie counterculture drag troupe known as the Cockettes, whom performed live theatrical spectacles before and between film screenings. A documentary film about the troupe premiered at OUTFEST in 2002, which heavily influenced my own interest to transition from work in the Hollywood film industry toward performance art and begin training with Rachel Rosenthal later that autumn.
Arnold went on to direct a film with the Cockettes, called Luminous Procuress, which caught the attention of Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol. Arnold became a protege of Dali and helped him to design and create the Teatro-Museo Dali in Figueres, Spain. Upon return to the states, Arnold moved to LA, where disappointed by attempts to work his aesthetics into the mainstream film industry went on to create his own body of still photographic work. He gathered found objects from his neighborhood to compose artistic sets, spending some time to lay them out in various arrangements on his studio floor. He would then invite friends over for a long dinner conversation and preparation before having them lie on the floor inside his compositions, where he would quickly photograph them from above on a ladder.
Revisiting my first experience with his work, the 1985 photograph “Untitled (Rachel Rosenthal)” brings up a variety of observations. First, there is the level the piece works directly as an iconic representation of an angel, with Rosenthal’s arms outstretched in a manner that is warm and welcoming while being theatrical and mystical. Unlike some of Arnold’s other scenarios, it is a rather simply adorned piece, with much brilliance in the restraint for the focus on the figure. Rosenthal is boldly lit at center with massive wings that angle outward beyond the edges of the photo. The bundle of tulle over her body seems both intricately placed and thrown together randomly – simultaneously energized and frenetic, yet soft and comforting. She is surrounded in a dark black void peppered with a few pearl-like stars. The image also represents the kind of commanding force of nature that Rosenthal herself was. She crafted performance artworks that intelligently dug into her audience’s psyche while delivering works that could condemn petty human action while still offering an uplifting message. Arnold created a whole body of work involving angels, for they reflected his need to express photographic memorials for friends dying during the AIDS epidemic as a way to transform his pain and mythologize their ascension. It is a fitting example of how art can provide much needed solace in times of crisis, both helping the community to move onward and to leave lasting messages that will inspire future generations in ways as Arnold has in mine.