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January 30 - March 28, 2004 at Skirball Cultural Center, West Los Angeles

by Shirle Gottlieb

As the pendulum swings back and forth through time, we are constantly reminded that "those who don't learn from history are doomed to relive it." In 1999, under the Freedom of Information Act, artist Arnold Mesches obtained access to the massive 760-page file that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had accumulated on his activities for over 27 years. From 1945-1972, people who were Mesches' friends, neighbors, colleagues, models, even a lover, had been spying on him surreptitiously and informing the FBI. One student even photographed his classes with a tiny camera hidden in his tie.

Acknowledging that this was a dark period in our country's history (one that was destructively split by polarized ideologies of left and right), Mesches wasn't surprised to read reports about his participation in peace marches or demonstrations against Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. But there were volumes of trivia: the kind of car he drove, the dates of his children’s birth, the subjects of his art lectures, the fact that he worked on the set of a Tarzan movie or showed a Czech film in his class. Even more ludicrous is the assertion that "he must be a Communist" because he wears rolled up paint-spattered pants, T-shirts, and an old jeans jacket.

After viewing his documents (plus those of others who were secretly monitored during this tragic time), Mesches was fascinated to discover that the pages were "aesthetically beautiful to look at. . .kind of like Franz Kline color sketches with bold black slashes of paint where words had been blocked out." Their physical appearance wasn't the only thing that stuck a chord with the 80 year-old artist. Indeed, from his point of view it was all "deja vu." The political policies that have controlled (or protected, depending on your point of view) our country since 9/11 (such as the Patriot Act, the Terrorism Information and Prevention System, plus the Total Information Awareness program) bear a troubling resemblance to the repressive climate that existed from the 1950s through the Vietnam War.

It was with those thoughts in mind that Mesches created this series of provocative, layered collages composed from his personal FBI file plus news clippings, 1950's magazine cut-outs, personal photographs, and hand-written scripts.

“FBI File 34," 2002, acrylic
on canvas/paper and wood.
Photo: Susan Einstein.

“FBI File
18," 2001,
mixed media on paper.

“FBI File 22," 2001, acrylic
on canvas and board/paper.

"FBI File 31," 2002,
acrylic on canvas/paper.

Consciously crafted as "contemporary illuminated manuscripts," the majority of these mixed-media works have colorful, decorated borders that may remind viewers of a medieval book of hours. Their content, however, references the social and political climate of Mesches’ young adult years--with emphasis on the First Amendment Rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Since there are over 50 collages in this thought-provoking series, there are a lot of serious issues to consider. In FBI File 22, for example, the widely-published photograph of Rosa Parks sitting in the bus is juxtaposed with an FBI report that attempts to link Mesches to the Communist Party.

In FBI File 18, the famous shot of Marilyn Monroe with her dress blowing up from Some Like it Hot is paired with G.I. Joe in the Jungle; while in FBI File 31, delegates waving red/white/blue banners at a political convention share the page with the stark white sheet of a hooded KKK clansman mounted on a pole.

By combining government files, volatile headlines, and startling memos with icons of popular culture, Mesches tells us his version of the fractured time during which he was under surveillance. Included in his "illustrated manuscripts" are a wide gamut of recognizable celebrities that come from every facet of our political spectrum. Chances are you'll recognize Malcolm X, Joseph McCarthy, Paul Robeson, Robert Mitchum, Richard Nixon, Nikita Kruschchev, Dwight Eisenhower--no longer the political and cultural players of the moment but now symbolic of history’s landscape.
And here we go again.