The door to Chuck Arnoldi's studio is nondescript, easy to miss, in spite of the hand-painted A, like much of Venice it is a façade of the unpretentious outer remnant of an interior space that has been completely transformed. As with the artist's work, inside, the space is immediately commanding, one's perspective irresistibly altered.
The artist's studio and gallery spaces are connected by a large open courtyard which were designed by Arnoldi to accommodate his dual interests in painting and sculpture. There is an organic density and innate intelligence in Arnoldi's work. His newest paintings reflect the rich curiosity and adventurous split that have consistently informed his varied output. Throughout his career, Arnoldi has exhibited a willingness to explore unfamiliar territory and to embrace the full scope of experience. In the exhibition catalog to Arnoldi's recent work, long time friend and world renowned architect Frank O'Gehry said, "I first became aware of Chuck Arnoldi in the early '70s. His work was tougher and stronger than the people of his generation, and impressed me with its directness and invention.
As we sat down to talk, I found an artist who was intensely interested and passionately engaged in his life and art.
Venice: Let's begin with a little background. How did you get started as an artist?
Arnoldi: I come from a broken home, so I spent a lot of time in my youth making models, drawing, building forts. When I did, I got I got a little bit of attention from people, which I missed in my family. But I never thought about becoming an artist. It was never a conscious thing. It was never presented to me, although I did have an uncle who was an artist. But he was always considered a nut, this black sheep in the family. Nobody ever said 'Go to school, take art classes.' My thought was, quit high school, get a job at Delco Marine and try to work graveyard shifts so that you get the time and a half or double time pay. Later on I got to California, and by a fluke thing I met a couple, a young architect and his wife who was an artist,, and I had sketchbooks. He said 'You know, you've got a lot talent, why don't you go to school and take art classes.' And I was sort of surprised, 'What do you mean go to school? 'Well, just a normal junior college.' So I go to this junior college, and I enroll in basic classes and I start drawing and stuff. They tell me I've got a lot of potential.
Did you have any sense of the art world, particular artists at this point?
I hadn't paid a lot of attention to real paintings and museums because most of my exposure was through magazines. After I was there for a bout a year I went to New York to visit a girlfriend's grandmother who lived in Greenwich Village. Everyday she'd make me a little map of how to get to a museum and it was the first time I got exposure to real paintings. All of a sudden I saw Pollocks and de Koonings and they had finger prints and smears and smudges, and I thought, Jesus, they're cracked and they're not perfect like in reproductions in magazines. And I thought, 'My God, a person can really do this." I was very turned on. So after going to New York I really wanted to make paintings and the next thing was that I got redirected into this illustration mode. It took me a couple of weeks at Art Center to realize that wasn't what I had in mind. It sort of seems naïve but that's what really happened. I had gone to Art Center to become a commercial illustrator and I realized that they were going to use my talents to sell people stuff they didn't want. So I quit and went to Chouinard.
You have been accomplished as both a painter and a sculptor. Did you start out working equally in both media?
When I got to Chouinard, I wanted to go and make paintings and all of a sudden I start hearing, 'You can't make paintings' Painting is not a valid issue.' I'm going, 'What the hell is a valid issue?' I always loved painting first but I never really thought of myself as a painter or a sculptor. I just wanted to do stuff. I was real excited. I started painting at school but they kept drumming it into my head, 'You can't do that.' There was all this pressure to do alternative stuff. By a fluke, I happened to be in Malibu after a fire. I saw these trees that wee burned and the branches had all the leaves burned off and they looked like charcoal lines. I saw them against the sky and I thought, 'That looks like a hand-drawn line, but nature did it.' So I broke them off and took them back to my studio. I made these configurations which I considered to be paintings, but they were actually stick constructions on the wall. So that initial thing was trying to find alternative ways of making a painting. But, in a funny way, when you have to justify your thinking, you start thinking in terms of justification. I made lost of sculpture in early days that performed a physical task.
What do you mean by 'physical task?'
For me, a hardware store is an interesting place because they don't manufacture anything that doesn't have a purpose. So, the logic is that any object of any configuration is okay because it performs a function. I made some very early sculptures where it would be three sticks tied together and four sticks tied together and three points hung on a nail on a wall. But the sticks were actually a real mechanical device performing a function, working off gravity. You start thinking like that and you start making sculptures and objects because, also, they are real. You can't deny them. It's not an illusion. Painting is an illusion. You work with physical things and you come up with reasons to make sculptures. I mean it can be as wacko as you want but nobody can deny something that occupies physical space. I think that that is why painting is much more difficult. With sculpture you always have the benefit of the doubt that another view is better, so if it doesn't quite look good from there you just have to walk around it. But no matter whether you like it or hate it, it s real. Whereas with painting, if you start out with a flat surface and there's nothing on it and you have to make marks then you have to create something. It is an illusion and until you pull it off, you have nothing but a mess. So in a funny way trying to do justifiable art I did a lot of sculptural things. But they were mostly about drawing and line.
How did you support yourself early on?
They were going to make Chouinard become Cal Arts. They were going to kind of spiff the place up so it look ed good. One of the things they wee going to do was to buy all new tools, power tools, because it was all just real thrashed out shit. I was getting student loans and I met Laddie Dill. He was making Plexiiglas frames for his work to present on Fridays for his crits and it looked real slick. I hunted him down, and said, 'You and I could go into business together. I am going to take my student loans, I'll buy the saw from the school that they're gonna get rid of, and we'll start our own frame company. We can sell frames to everybody in school and we'll start going to art openings and sell frames, and we can make money.' So he and I started the Acme Frame Company with my student loan money and the old equipment from Chouinard. Hired other students to make frames for us.
Did you have a studio yet or were you working at school?
Laddie and I had this huge loft. Pico and Olive, downtown, just gigantic, great loft. Had the Acme Frame Company on the corner and Laddie and I started making bigger art. Because now all of a sudden we were kind of rich.
Frames. Of course! How did your career progress from there? Was it easy for you to break into the gallery scene?
Basically, we were kind of hanging around and this was about the time Gemini was getting going and they were bringing Rauschenberg and all those guys out, Johns, Lichtenstein. We'd go to these openings, mostly to try to sell frames to people. And we got to know people like the Grinsteins and we'd hear about these parties here and there. The scene was pretty small. Nick Wilder and Irving Blum were the big galleries. We still had those Monday night art walks on La Cienega. I really wanted to show with Nick or with Irving. I had gotten a young talent award from the LA County Museum and Riko Mizuno came to see me and wanted to show me. I was about 22 years old and I didn't particularly want to show with Rico. I wanted to show with Irving or Nick. So she went to see Nick and Irving and they called me and said, 'You should show with her.' And so I showed with Riko and I got invited to Dokumenta and a bunch of stuff early on. (Arnoldi later showed with Nick Wilder and James Corcoran.)
Your work over the last several years has been heavily weighted toward painting. What sparked the transition?
Everything changed fairly radically for me about six years ago. My wife got pregnant and we went through the whole thing of having a child. About that time I had a phone call from my mother that my brother is sick and dying of AIDS. As a result of him being sick, she just gave up, got sick and died very quickly. Then my brother died. At this point I am 40 some odd years old. I realize since my early twenties I had been having all these art shows and ...everything I was doing was bigger and heavier and required a lot of physical strain... I'd make the stuff, have the art shows and I had all these deadlines. So I decided to stop.
The logical thing was to go back to something I really liked, and that was to probably make a painting. I went to into the studio, got rid of the assistants and everything and just started painting. I guess it's been five or six years now, I've been pretty much painting. Although I did make a batch of sculptures which were much more organic in form. They were very much about, in a funny way, like death bumps that I've gone through. I don't really try to explain the pains that give form to the sculpture, but that in fact is what forced me to change.
So one could infer from this that things are going very well for you now?
I'm starting to feel much better. I have a daughter, two years later, and my life is feeling pretty good. Plus I am at the point I am old enough now that I really sort of don't give a shit now what people think.. And so for the first time in my art, also I think it's because the discipline of painting on a flat surface, there is a familiarity about parts of the field. People say, 'Oh it sort of looks like Matisse,' but for me it looks Matisse, it looks like Picasso, it looks like Gorky. It looks like anybody who ever painted on canvas, unless they are a geometric artist or a minimalist. The forms show up in painting. Whether you paint a figure, or whatever, because it's a visual vocabulary that it is based on real organic bodies and their shapes. Nature is full of these shapes. So they started creeping into my work and I thought 'What the hell, I don't care if I am the only guy in the world doing my stick painting.' There wasn't anybody doing it. I wanted to be out there by myself, you know. But now, there is a familiarity, I feel comfortable with that.
That's an interesting transition. I think that a lot of times artists are reluctant to let go of a style for which they've become known.
For the life of me, I don't understand how artists can paint the same painting for forty years. I know a lot of them do this. And to me it's like, I don't get it. I don't care if Carl Andre owns the floor because he puts steel there. I couldn't do that for as many years in a row as he has and walk around and feel proud of myself. Or own fluorescent light fixtures or paint solid white paintings...I'd be bored out of my mind.
They become trapped by that identity?
I think Frank Stella, for instance, has incredible integrity, because he could have stopped at any point. The black paintings, the silver paintings, the shaped canvases. But look what he's doing now. I think he's terrific. For God sakes, this man gave us an idea and he pursues it and he doesn't give a shit what anybody thinks. That's wonderful! To me that willingness to continue taking risks and exploring is so much more interesting then developing this kind of set mystique and identity.
Where do you feel the pressure comes from to stay with a particular identity?
I think that the system locks them into that. Because there are such high stakes and they get so much attention and so much fame. They want to hold on to this as long as they can. The other thing is that when you are in your twenties certain things are really important to you. There are certain peer pressures, there's a certain wanting to make a mark, there's a certain attitude. You are willing to wear tattoos, and the earrings and the nose holes. Whatever it takes, hair down to your back or shave your head. Then in your thirties different things happen to you. In your forties different things happen to you. And I think that that should be reflected in the art,. In a lot of people it is. To me art is not the specific paintings. It's not the perfect painting in '57 or '67 or '87. Art is a person who dedicates their life to this pursuit of trying to do whatever the hell, make an object, or whatever it is. They devote their whole life to a discipline and they actually carry it out. And it goes through all the changes in your life. All the different ego things that happen to you. The tragedies that happen. The things that affect a person's life, you can sort of follow in their work. And what is really interesting is looking at what one person can produce while they are on the planet. Because it is a limited thing. Art is more valuable than diamonds. For all we know, someone may dig a swimming pool in Oxnard next week and discover a whole new vein of diamonds that are bigger and more beautiful than all the ones that DeBeer's has in their stock pile and they're worth nothing. They keep producing because nature produces. But man, once Picasso died, as prolific as he was, ...the production stooped. And now we look back at him as pretty damn interesting. Whereas I can remember back in the 1970s, when people were saying, 'Oh, God, Picasso.' Shit, I see a photograph in Vanity Fair, and both Arne Gimscher and Larry Gagosian are photographed in front of Picasso paintings. If you remember, neither one of the paintings look finished.
But now anything he even started on is PICASSO! I love that. There is something really beautiful and interesting about what this man had the guts to do... he was naked on the canvas.
Who else do you find inspiring in that regard?
I think, for instance, Phil Guston is one of the greatest American artists that ever lived because he switched to those [late] paintings. Everybody in New York thought he lost his God damn mind. Those to me are much better than his early abstract expressionist paintings. Although his early paintings were beautiful paintings. Guston went through some changes in his life and started painting honest painting that were fantastic. I see a parallel between Guston and Jasper Johns. You know, nobody likes Jasper Johns' new paintings. They're scared to death of them. But I see the similarity. He's an older man now and other things are important to him. He doesn't give a shit about making an American flag or a God damn target anymore. These are more personal and autobiographical. They are full of information. They are interesting and they're Jasper Johns story. Now, they may make it look that Jasper wasn't as great as we all thought, but I think it makes him out to be a damn interesting, gutsy artist. The fact that half these critics and people turn their backs on them is bullshit. But at least he's a real artist. As an artist you get these ideas. Who the hell knows where they come from. But if you have the guts to act them out, that's what you should be appreciated for. Unfortunately, in the art world it doesn't work that way. Because they want to fortify that one, recognizable image, is worth 'x' amount of dollars and made fame. And that's wrong. Or that you did something radical and new. Doing something radical and new sometimes can be interesting. At other times it's just pure, I don't know what the hell it is, news. And news, I mean. Nobody likes yesterday's paper.
What do you want to do in your work at this point in your life?
Ultimately, what I would really love to do is make good enough paintings that other people who want to make paintings would say 'God I wish I made those paintings'. To me that's the ultimate thing, that if another person who feels the way I do about painting says, 'I wish I could do that!' That's it.