This big, bearded, gregarious laughing mass of a man could give a flying 747 fuck about what you think of him. If he controlled the weather, it’d be King Kong conducting an orchestra. By some accounts he shouldn’t be here, here as in alive. His art looks like a potent drug induced rampage, or a ballerina freezing in first position on a feather sailing through the wind. For those that know him (including this article’s author), artist John Felix Arnold III is a basket case of narcissism splattered with slashes of abstract beauty, reverence and a hustler’s spirit complete with bullhorns.
Influenced by Manga and Japanese woodblock prints, Arnold’s natural ability to render stream of consciousness figures is a test to his craftsmanship. Living in Oakland, California, his main gift is illustration, but he’s branched into constructing stages and sculptures to function as religious altars: found-wood shaped like a single winged eagle inscribed in a circle of fresh soil, and a moped whose headlight is an animal’s skull. His custom stages are performances or offerings to the masters that came before him. “Art is prayer” or at least, the act of creating it is. This weekend, starting May 10th, is the opening for Pilgrimage, Arnold’s first solo show at The Shooting Gallery.
Aided by Paxton Gate, Arnold is doing site-specific installations drenched in soundscapes and recorded voices that create a multi-sensory experience. This show is about a new beginning; survivors of an obliterated world seeking existential salvation. It’s about what to do after coming out of living in a toxic cloud and sufficiently destroying the self-indulgent ego. Pilgrimage includes mixed-media, drawing, painting, installation and sound, all produced by Arnold. In this TMG interview and on the eve his opening, the artist answered our questions over email. He talked about his process, repurposing his past work, his Grandfather spotting the enemy on an Okinawa beach during World War II and more.
How has your art changed over time?
It’s becoming less literal. I don’t feel like I have to spell out every thing with an image or a literal interpretation of specific people or events. I have really ebbed and flowed deeply in and out of being very process oriented and I am diving deeper into now. I think I am lucky also in that I have done a lot of different things with different media over time, and lately I have been narrowing down and my work is becoming more realized within different mixtures of media that I have been honing over time.
Can you describe your art-making process from conception to completion?
I start to brainstorm as well as meditate on certain ideas and directions I want to go. I listen and pay attention to my subconscious through meditation and allow certain visions to become fully etched into my mind. I definitely look for references that help to identify others who have shared similar visions. I do photo shoots with models and of places for idea-mapping and specific references I want to create. I get a bunch of paper, wood, and whatever else I feel like, and then I go crazy. Then I just go at it for months and let my process and intuition and many many long hours and days and nights in the studio carry me through a body of work.
How is your current show different from your previous shows? You like to build custom stages; will there be a stage and a performance at your show?
Not necessarily a stage. This show has less specifically literal portraiture in it like past shows. The amount of work in it still kind of boggles my mind considering I also had a solo show with a lot of work in it in NYC just a month ago. I’m also showing pieces that are purely textural and abstract with no line work, as well as a series of new non-rectangular or square found-wood panel pieces that are very abstract, very minimal, and to me more dynamic than anything I have made to date.
Why call it Pilgrimage?
It’s about a group of people that have decided it is time to move and time to change their way of life from within and out into the world, to go on a sort of spiritual journey internally as well as geographically. My life to this point has been about seeing reality and finally coming to grips with it. I have in the past year really begun to embark on the same sort of journey in my own life, and next year I plan on making some rather big changes as well, that will take some serious adjustment and some self-maintenance.
You like to consistently use work or images from your previous shows in susequent exhibitions. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I noticed that you take parts of the stages that you’ve built and draw on them, thereby turning them into pieces. What’s your take on repetition and the repurposing of your work?
The work for this show actually is made from pretty much all new panels and things. But yes I probably will be using the panels for the installation in this show for more future work. It is not wasteful. It is respectful to these creations of mine to continue to let them live on and change and have a life. A lot of the materials I use I found cast away, trash. To give them a life of changes and growth and evolution, to me, creates a conversation and a process of building with my surroundings and the place I live.
In describing your show you said, “mankind’s obsessive drive to innovate has lead to a reset of civilization wherein humans are no longer the dominant species.” Do you think there’s any irony in mankind’s imagination and innovation being the cause for its own destruction?
For sure hahahahah! We are incapable of not creating and innovating, it’s not human to not want to continue doing things and changing them and making them “better.” But as I learned with a lot of my own bad habits, if something is created in a system that at root is actually damaging to everything around it, including its creators, but the knowledge of its foundation being dangerous or harmful is not realized until far after the system has unraveled and is the norm, then everyone is basically doomed until that system, inevitably, comes crashing down. Only then will it be a possibility to really truly look at that which failed and why, and attempt to do something that is created within a helpful context. Humanity’s notions of self, ego and power stand in our own way of a real evolution I feel. Maybe they always will, maybe that is our curse. To be so incredible at doing and thinking of so many things, but having the most bizarre and ego driven reasons for so many of them.
You use a lot of found objects in your work. Do found objects carry ghosts?
Yes. Not always in the scary sense, but the sense that they have resonance, stories, internal workings and connections with all things. They carry experiences in them and they have character. They got soul, son!
The internet has allowed artists to spend more time on work for galleries while their street art is work (stickers, posters, wheat pastes) that’s reproduced and used multiple times, acting as a brand. How has this changed the way you look at art? Also, has it changed the way you approached your own work?
If anything it’s made me take my own work a lot more seriously as well as have a lot more fun with it. It makes me really think and feel out what my true meanings, intentions, and concepts are. Am I really being honest with my work? Does it have integrity and what does it mean to me? It [the way the internet has affected the art world] has helped me understand where I want to go with my art, what my goals are, and what I am also not willing to do and when I need to say no to things. It has helped me better understand who I am as a person, what I really believe in and what I am made of while looking at myself and my own work critically.
In the age of information overload and social media, how do you think interacting with images has changed?
Images, like music, are so accessible and so over saturated now that one has to be careful how we put them out there in the world. I strive to create work now that rather than being super literal and explaining everything for the viewer, demands that they try to step in it and spend some time with it. This to me creates more of a relationship with it and will give it more longevity. There are those who definitely disagree with me, but hey, the Nike logo is one of the most memorable icons of all time, it is simple, an organic shape and demands that one actually step into it and have a conversation with it. It sticks in the mind and retains a sense of mystery and integrity because it isn’t just giving up all its secrets to the viewer, it isn’t telling us what to do, it is asking us to come and think about it and try to understand it while it just continues on. It [the Nike logo] by itself (without text) is an idea, a motion, a feeling, a movement, a thought. I think the Internet has made art more accessible to a much huger, global audience, which is a great thing. The share of information is important as we move forward and leaves greater room for conversations amongst nations. There are down sides of course but that entertains a lengthy conversation.
What’s the best art show you’ve seen in recent memory?
I saw Gregory Johnston’s “Chromatic Interactions” at Joshua Liner in NYC on my recent trip there. It was really something else to look at and spend some time with that work. Also Jet Martinez at White Walls was super awesome. I’m not just saying that because I have a show with them opening this Saturday; Jet’s work was really and truly so good! He is a master of his craft, and makes really out there color work that is equal parts calming and deeply moving. A lot of deep meaning and a lot of soul but he doesn’t have to hit the viewer over the head. Kind of feels like the warm fun and happy entrance to a deep meditation, or if I was younger, like the beginnings of an epic mushroom trip. Johnston’s work had a similar ability to draw me in, but was very minimal and the relationships between the large color expanses within the multitiered pieces was mesmerizing. It transported me somewhere very different than this reality, in a manner of speaking.
You’ve made it known that you’ve had bouts with alcoholism. How has that affected making art and your approach to life?
I wouldn’t trade any part of my history for the world, and I wouldn’t trade my present for any bout with alcohol or drugs. Let’s say that I was no longer making art, what I was making was terrible and I knew it, and I really was no longer living life. I was basically dying a long, slow, tragic, painful death in every way possible. Now I have an amazing life. I am very happy with the art I am making, and I work really hard to maintain a sense of balance and peace. I go at life with a lot of gratitude and a lot less debilitating fear than I used to. I actually live life and am an active participant in it, rather than watching it shrivel and die before my eyes.
You’ve been making art and hustling and navigating your way through the art industry for years now; what keeps you hyper active?
I have this deep internal energy, fire, chi, Hadouken, spirit, whatever you want to call it, that is so much bigger than me and the body that I am in. I have a certain connection with it, or maybe I have a certain connection with a much grander and bigger energy than myself in this lifetime. It moves me to be honest with you. I might sound weird to a lot of people but something guides me that is far beyond my comprehension and that is totally fine with me. I don’t try to figure it out, I just pay attention, I act on intuition, I consider my effect on others, and I do my absolute best to give all of myself to that creative energy that seems to lead me, that seems to fuel what I create and what I do with myself in this lifetime. I have to do all of these things I am doing or I feel I would explode or spin out of orbit. [Artist] Hannah Stouffer recently had a show called “Internal Energy.” Hannah I feel you on that, it’s profound and when we tap into it and pay attention and respect it, there is no limit to the visions and things we can realize and achieve.
I believe that this energy exists within, in multiple dimensions of being. Ones we cannot see or touch or know of with our conscious or rational mind. When I meditate I see these worlds and planes, and I know that everything I make and create and do here exists in some way shape or form everywhere else at the same time. I gotta make work son, it’s how I communicate with the universe and show gratitude for how all things are intertwined.
Do you have any stories that your parents or grandparents told you?
My grand father used to tell us this vivid story about how when he was in WWII (he was a chaplain) he ran up on a beach in Okinawa [although not confirmed] with a pistol and everyone around him was like “What the heck, the beach is deserted?” and suddenly all these trees and brush started to move and these tanks started rolling towards them from out of no where and firing and it got super crazy. He always started the story off by explaining how he was a chaplain, so they he didn’t have a gun but one of the commanders gave him a pistol and said something like “You might need this.”
What’s next for you?
I have a Fecal Face show in October that I’m stoked about. Finishing a big commission. I plan on spending some serious time on the East Coast next year, working on a tremendous body of work. I really want to go back to Japan to do another meditations journey in Koyasan, maybe go snowboarding in Hokkaido someday and see spirits on an Onsen in the the winter. Definitely want to organize a show there with some fellow artists here and in Japan. I want to go to Peru super bad as well. And me and NYC are going to continue building our relationship, we have some things to do together.
I also plan to make some work in North Carolina, some explorative work in the South. The American south is a strange, beautiful, horrible and amazing-mystical place. There are a lot of materials to work with and a lot of stories, even just out of my own life, I want to investigate and share within my context. Or maybe I will jump out of my framework who knows, but doing something there is very important to me sometime in the near future.
Artist site: Felix The Third Rock
Arnold’s show at The Shooting Gallery opens May 10th at 7pm-11pm and runs through June 7th.
Below is a 2012 video profile of the artist by Erik Anderson.