Writer/Artist Arnold Mesches borrows the language of medieval illuminated manuscripts-illustrations and text set off by decorative borders-and gives it a contemporary twist in the current crop of 50 paintings and collages now on view in the “FBI Files” exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center. Just as early handwritten manuscripts recorded 13th century history, the works in this exhibition light up the darker side of recent American history during the Cold War/McCarthy era. In 1999, through the Freedom of Information Act, Mesches discovered and gained access to 760 pages of FBI files covering his political activities, personal life, teaching and artistic production between 1945 and 1972. “I had goose pimples-it was just unbelievable,” says Mesches, who was struck by both a sense of betrayal-countless former students, neighbors, colleagues and “friends” were among those who cooperated with the FBI-as well as by the alluring aesthetic quality of these typewritten documents that had large portions obscured by thick black lines in an attempt to protect the betrayers. The slashing black strokes in the documents reminded Mesches of the late Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline’s art, inspiring him to create the body of work that comprises the “FBI Files.” In these works, actual pages from the FBI files are mixed with images of popular culture, 1950s-era advertising and elements from Mesches’ own figurative paintings and drawings. Celebrities, politicians and other notables of the day-everyone from Malcolm X to Richard Nixon and Marilyn Monroe-also figure in the work, a style that seems to merge Abstract Expressionism with Pop Art, all wrapped in an illuminated manuscript-like decorative border. “Everything I’ve ever known is in my art,” says Mesches, whose animated speech, easy laughter, and quick step belie his 80 years. “I want people to wonder why things are juxtaposed in my work.” Mesches, a lifelong leftist activist, ultimately hopes to expose what he sees as the “evils and ridiculousness” of his long-term surveillance by the FBI, while addressing such broader themes as the right to privacy and freedom of expression. Born in the Bronx and now living in Florida, the artist has strong ties to Los Angeles. He lived here for more than 40 years and taught at USC, UCLA, the Art Center of Design and Otis College of Art and Design. He continues to teach at several universities and art schools. While Mesches views his current series as a summation of a certain historical time, he also sees strong parallels with what’s happening today in terms of limits placed on civil liberties. “It went on then, it will go on again,” he says, making specific reference to the controversial Homeland Security Act and Patriot Act. Surprisingly, Mesches harbors no bitterness towards those who spied on him. “It was a long time ago,” he says. “And what the hell’s the difference? Ninety percent of them are dead.” The exhibition continues at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. in L.A., through March 28. Contact: 440-4500.
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