A Scary Picture

In a nightmarish time, these images of nightmares still work.

The current state of affairs in the world, involving the destruction of the World Trade Center, the war in Afghanistan and the use of bio-agents as weapons, has incidentally made some art exhibits edgier and more difficult than had originally been intended by their organizers. Especially problematic are shows with disturbing images as their centerpieces or themes -- the kind of thing that is expected this time of year, since death and decay are associated with the fall in general and with Halloween in particular.

As it happens, curator Simon Zalkind has found himself at the helm of two such exhibits. At the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture -- where Zalkind serves as exhibition director -- the traveling Arnold Mesches is on display. The show is filled to the max with dark and foreboding paintings that seem to concern, at best, bad dreams, and at worst, nightmares. And at the Lakewood Cultural Center, Zalkind is guest curator for The Dream Mill, a group show made up of -- you guessed it -- dark and foreboding paintings based on bad dreams and nightmares.

"We opened the Mesches show on September 9, and it looked completely different then than it did a few days later, on September 11," says Zalkind, who is keenly aware of the awkward situation he has been thrust into.

"Coney," by Arnold Mesches, acrylic on canvas.
"Coney," by Arnold Mesches, acrylic on canvas.
"Coney," by Arnold Mesches, acrylic on canvas.
"Coney," by Arnold Mesches, acrylic on canvas.

Details

Through October 28, 303-399-2660

The Dream Mill
Through November 7
Lakewood Cultural Center, 480 South Allison Parkway, Lakewood
303-987-7876

101 Vampires
Through October 31
GOOG, 765 Santa Fe Drive
303-623-4664

Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, 350 South Dahlia Street

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Regardless, the paintings in the Mesches exhibit are both sharply relevant and spectacularly beautiful. Although they are often troubling, the mostly large works, many of them on unstretched canvas, are exquisitely done and brilliantly conceived -- something not unexpected from an artist with a professional career that spans more than fifty years.

Mesches was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx in 1923 and grew up in Buffalo. In 1942, after taking a course in advertising design, he entered the Art Center School of Los Angeles. Later in the 1940s, he became interested in art history and began painting.

In the 1950s, as the details of the Holocaust became known, Mesches began a lifelong effort to deal with it in artistic terms and to see it in the light of the experiences of the Jewish Diaspora in the United States, of which he is a member. Unlike many artists who have explored the Holocaust, Mesches doesn't so much illustrate the tragedy as simply suggest it through his palette and mood. And when he does use direct references to World War II, such as images of gas masks or soldiers, he reveals a certain and unexpected sangfroid in his approach to them.

The Mesches show was organized by Gerry Snyder and sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum in Portland. The paintings included were all created in the past several years.

The first piece that catches the eye -- or would that be demands attention? -- is "Coney," a gigantic 1997 acrylic on canvas that's been hung on the back wall facing the gallery's entrance. While "Coney" is dominated by deep tones of black and gray, Mesches uses lighter shades, including pink, orange, purple and white, to pick up the highlights of the various objects on the canvas. These objects conjure up the legendary amusement park Coney Island, which has been referred to as "the place of dreams." In the foreground are the horses of the Steeplechase ride; to the left are a rocket and a biplane; to the right are the parachute-jump ride and the neon sign that reads "Coney"; missiles fly in the sky above. The whole thing, though, is anchored by the mammoth figure of a green Cyclops who hovers over the park, holding grotesque severed heads in his hands; more severed heads float beneath his arms.

Without making any overt references to the Holocaust or WWII -- the piece is ostensibly about an amusement park -- Mesches makes us think of these events. The hideous Cyclops transforms the meaning of the amusement park so that the viewer realizes that the rides could also be the tools of war: horses, planes, parachutes, rockets, missiles.

The park is also referred to in "Coney Island," from 1999, another acrylic on canvas. This painting is light-filled and has been constructed in a style that mimics collage. Across the bottom, Mesches has lined up a series of images based on old photographs and illustrations. There's a corset shop, a posed snapshot and various other elements based on photographs, and a map of the Nazi Empire from around 1940. Filling the entire top of the composition is a daytime view of the grand entrance to Coney Island, with fireworks exploding above. To convey the fireworks, Mesches uses the kind of arrows that indicate troop movements. The arrows, of course, relate not just to the fireworks, but to the map.

Not everything here refers to WWII, but all of the paintings recall the early to mid-twentieth century. One of these more broadly nostalgic pieces is the spectacular "Read for Knowledge," an acrylic on canvas from 1996. It's a crowded composition that depicts one of those open-air magazine stands that are still a feature of New York. Like several others, it has a black ground on top of which lighter colors have been painted. Hanging with it are several studies for the individual magazines displayed on and around the stand. These small and marvelous studies reveal the way Mesches works. He uses numerous studies -- not just preliminary paintings like these, but photos and drawings, too, which are all brought together in preparation for the finished painting.

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