Interview with Van Arno for “Upright”

Thinkspace Projects is pleased to present New Contemporary veteran Van Arno’s solo exhibition Upright in our gallery’s main room. The exhibition features Arno’s dynamic figurative work that plays with proportion and distortion throughout the composition from narrative to the technical elements. In anticipation of the exhibition opening, Saturday, February 3rd, our interview with Van Arno discusses his perspective on the evolution of the New Contemporary art movement to his creative process. Also why Salvador Dali is not on the list for a dinner party.

Opening reception, Saturday, February 3rd  from 6 pm to 9 pm. 

SH: As the body of work in this exhibition was developed on highlighting the individual figure, where did you draw inspiration to develop the composition?
VA: I didn’t set out to do a series. The first piece I did was Sweet Tart, and I was really happy with how it turned out. I had cropped into the figure a lot, so although it isn’t a huge painting (24”x 48”) she is slightly larger than life. I was excited to do more work along those lines, and the series came out of that. It’s Upright because all but one are vertical compositions.

My horizontal piece, Susanna And The Elders, is composed differently, and in a sense, it is a transition piece leading me into this new series. It’s a biblical story about a woman who is spied on while bathing by two old men. It’s been painted a lot through history, and it is usually about intimacy invaded by voyeurs. I felt observing a person whose life has deteriorated and is no longer able to behave rationally is far more invasive.

SH: How has your creative process evolved over the years? What is your favorite and least favorite part of the creative process?
VA: For a long time my work was very focused on narrative. I would find some nugget of a story from history or mythology, and try to use it as a launch pad, to make the story reflect my skewed opinion about the event or general human behavior.

My new series is more focused on individuals, specifically these models. I’ve worked with some of them for years, and I know most of them pretty well. My struggle was to avoid doing pin-ups, so I wanted them to be strong, in control, self-possessed, and most of all individuals. This seems very of the moment right now, but when I started the series 2 years ago, #metoo was not on anyone’s radar.

SH: If you were to have a dinner party, which 5 people would you invite (dead or alive)? What would be on the menu? And what is the one question you’d ask from everyone?
VA: Well, I respect lots of kinds of creativity, but I’d invite artist because I’m interested in what kind of people they are. Gene Kelly was a genius and shaped the last half of the twentieth century more than people realize. I’d invite Jack Davis because his Mad Magazine work really inspired my youth and because Todd Schorr told me a funny story about meeting him. I’d include Greg “Cray” Simkins because I just don’t see him enough. We need a historic Italian painter so that’s gotta be Giambattista Tiepolo- the Hemingway of Rococo Painting. The northern renaissance should be represented, so that’s gotta be you, Roger Van dear Weyden. Salvador Dali is not invited. He’d overrun the conversation and eat all the oysters. We are having oysters.

I’d let questions unfold organically

SH: In your work, there is clearly a love of form, especially the body, where do you gather your references? Does the form inspire the rest of the piece? Or does the composition’s story inform the form of the body?
VA: Sometimes I really have a character in mind, like Medea or the Mayan goddess Ixchel, and I find the model that brings something to the story. Other times I start with the model. If she has super strong legs, I give her 4 of them.

SH: What were you listening to while developing this body of work? Does your background noise influence the mood of the pieces?
VA: I rarely listen to music. It’s too distracting. ….This song makes me want to hear a different song by this artist, or a cover of it by another artist, and which album came out first? And is this person dead? And no I don’t want to hear this next song…

I like to have old movies on or marathons of tv shows I’ve seen. I find this just engaging enough, but sometimes hours pass before I look at the screen.

SH: Which piece in this show was most challenging and why?
VA: The Floor Is Lava was very challenging. I paint from reference photos that I shoot, and usually, the figure is composed of multiple photos because the poses are deceptively difficult. But on this piece, the perspective in my hallway was way different on different photos. Rectifying all this was a technical bloodbath.

SH: How do you know a piece is complete? When do you step away?
VA: It’s pretty tempting not to stop. Every piece I’ve done has elements that I could fix/improve. But, ultimately I stop when I’ve achieved communicating my intent. While I know I could polish it up more, I’d rather have it look a little rough. Like a human person made it.

SH: You have helped to shape what is now considered the New Contemporary Art Movement, what does the feel like to have been at the start of the evolution of something and to watch it progress?
VA: It’s remarkable because when I went to art school in 1984, fine art was a whole different animal. I was told figurative painting was extinct, and if I must paint, I should paint with a broom, or with cranberry sauce, and that video art was the future. Fine art was an austere, academic, inaccessible thing that no one liked. Now I see people at art openings on dates! Fine art became interesting and exciting. Robert Williams and street art and Juxtapose and Thinkspace did that! I’m privileged to have my career be part of this amazing transformation.

SH: What advice would you give to artists breaking into the art world and can you tell us about the first time you exhibited your work to the public, where was it? Do you remember the piece? (outside of school)
VA: My first show was at the Onyx coffee house on Vermont in LA, it’s now cafe Figaro and I still like to go there and sit in the room. I showed a bunch of paintings of Olive Oyl, who was my first muse. I bet I will paint her again this year. I am a teacher now, which I enjoy like crazy, and I’ve given out loads of advice. The best of it really boils down to – “the best way to start is to start… and you can’t fail at anything until you quit.”

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