The monks of medieval Europe who spent their days illuminating manuscripts were workmen first, artisans certainly and sometimes artists, their work – apart from praising God and preserving His holy word – being that of archivist and historian. More than mere decorators, what they “threw light on” or “brightened” was the world preoccupied with heaven and hell, sin and grace, the nature of things and the saving power of God.
Round about the turn of this century Arnold Mesches, who is neither monk nor medievalist nor Christian, began illuminating manuscripts from the world that long since had killed God but appropriated or accommodated to a version of His all-seeing eye. The manuscripts in question: Mesches’ FBI file, 1945 to 1972.
Arny, as he calls himself, is 91. He walks quickly. Something about him in motion, with a cane, talking, seems cantilevered. Wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees, all snap to as if operated mechanically, with great economy. He has objectives. He does not notice the chalkboard sign on the street that says, “Coffee! Throw it in the face of your enemy!” He does not worry that the hipsters inside the coffee place are solitary, affixed to their screens; that Bushwick, where we’re walking, the latest of New York’s rough zones to be colonized by art, is in a fight for its life. The sun is high, we are alive and headed to see his pictures at a gallery called Life on Mars. He has that punch so familiar among old commies who never forgot that while hope survives, politics are possible.
“Were you in the party?” I asked.
“Aw, yeah,” he said. His wrist bats the question like a lazy fly. Once, years ago to a group of Nation interns, Alger Hiss slipped from his long-told testimony and murmured, “We were all communists then.” Arny’s wrist says the same, with vigor.
He had decided to petition for his FBI file after seeing those of some friends. “I loved the way they looked, those black strokes, like Franz Kline color sketches. I also thought, ‘This is history, and, hey, this is my history.’”
The package that eventually arrived bespoke the precautions of a madman with a secret. Unbound from the armor of wads of plastic tape, the 768 pages disclosed the comings and goings of Mesches’ past, each page a single report, supplied by FBI agents or, more often, by comrades and bedmates, people at a meeting, in a crowd, studio models, purported friends. He learned that the Bureau paid informants $75 a page for their trouble. “Imagine if you were reporting on ten people, that’s $750 a week, $3,000 a month; people were living on it.” Half a million people were within the state’s scope during the years the House Un-American Activities Committee functioned. “I had only 768 pages. I had a friend who had 4,000. He was a very busy man.”
Arny pored over those pages, and while he was getting goose bumps he also saw beauty in the riddle of ink on paper. He began a series of large paintings, collages. Mulling the idea of illuminated manuscripts, he worked smaller, using the pages themselves, making diptychs, containing the documents within borders, adorning them with miniatures, ornamenting them with rough or classical lettering, tarting them up in gold.
The result was a 2002 exhibition at PS1 in Queens, now refreshed, concentrated and christened “Next in Line” for a new generation under surveillance. It is on intimate, riveting display until November 2 at Life on Mars. New Yorkers, get moving.
The show is comic as it is serious. Serious because it’s comic. The painted or lifted images bracketing the documents, interrupting them, obscuring them, emerge from the same period as the files but otherwise their juxtaposition is an accident of aesthetic choice. There is the first cover of Playboy, a paint-by-number Last Supper, Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking, a soldier in winter in Korea, snapshots of Coney Island, of Arny’s children, an audience in 3D glasses, Malcolm X, the KKK, pieces of toys, logos for Flair, for Mad, Nixon, image transfers from magazine ads for Cutty Sark, for Marlboro, from porno sheets, a hula hoop, the Kennedy convention with grotesques on lofted banners, Havana January 1, 1959, the Hollywood Strike 1946-47, Paul Robeson as Othello, a bloody handprint, a lunar module, a stencil of pickets, a protest armband, clowns, a sketched portrait of Arnold Mesches commissioned by the FBI and executed by an informant who masqueraded as a comrade.
Mesches was subject 100-27874. A “rank and file member” of the Los Angeles Communist Party, the FBI acknowledged some years into its watch, “book number 49939” – not much, or not yet. His “potential or actual dangerousness” seems to have been that he might become something more, might know someone bigger, do something bigger. He certainly popped up at a lot of marches and concerts for “peace.” Who could know his dark ambitions? He had been precociously radical, a “former AYD member”; that’s American Youth for Democracy, de facto youth arm of the CP. He had sold food from a lunch truck. While doing set illustrations for a Tarzan movie he walked off the job in the great Hollywood Strike. He learned to work in watercolor by going out painting with a couple of set people every morning after picket duty. He “dressed like a Communist,” always in jeans, a T-shirt – pretty much the way he dresses now. He did covers and inside drawings for Frontier, “definitely anti-FBI.” “He did sketches on disarmament for a conference in April, 1960, sponsored by the Emma Lazarus Jewish Women’s Club.” He drove a 1954 Ford station wagon, “an old model Nash, California license 2N19005”; in the vicinity of his house were parked a 1958 Chevrolet two-door, a 1954 Plymouth, 1953 Caddy, 1955 Dodge, 1957 Plymouth. Their license numbers are appended. He taught art in Salt Lake City but was “expelled for Communist Sympathies.” He taught art at USC. He signed a brief in support of John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo as representative of the Arts & Professions Group. On August 10, 1950, his son, Paul, was born. On January 26, 1966, the Special Agent in Charge of LA sent J. Edgar Hoover an airmail letter “Re: Artist Protest Committee/Information Concerning/(Internal Security)” with Mesches’ name and the suggestion of an upcoming demonstration evident but much else blacked out. Yes, he might be dangerous, but ten years into the surveillance an agent was still asking, “Arnold MESKE? try Arnold Maches, try Arnold Musches.”
The absurdity of the record works on you like a fever. Arny’s crazycat illumination turns up the heat. You envision the informants, those “of known reliability” and “unknown reliability,” making their notes, conferring their daytime smiles; the few who always spelled his name “Arnie” failing to cover their tracks. You think of the agent receiving the reports, filing them dutifully, divining their import. Maybe this should go to the Director? Where’s the whiskey? and later, at home, where are my balls? You think about that $75 and the schoolteachers who were bought on the threat of never working in LA County again. You try to imagine sex between the schoolteacher and her lover after she has delivered her report, you try to imagine the workday’s end for the monks of the Civil Service who draw thick lines through all those bought words, and you cannot. You sense only the dread in the space between the sigh and the cigarette.
“I really wanted the images to have a feeling of those days, the external life of those days,” Arny says at the gallery. “I was inspired by Bruegel. There’s a very important event – Icarus is drowning – and the farmer is plowing.”
The worst that happened to Mesches was the burglary of his studio in 1956. Two hundred sketches, 100 prints, all his paintings, including several of the Rosenbergs, were robbed, “every piece of work that I could live on.” His file makes no mention of this event and is silent about the six months leading up to and following it. Clearly, Arny carried on after the theft of his work, but this show isn’t really about him, or who survived, who drowned. It isn’t even really about the HUAC years. It’s about the world of the drowning and the farmer.
He titled the show “Next in Line” because surveillance is the open secret of this era. Almost no action feels private, but who knows how usable the vast store of information might be, and for what? Arny worries about the NSA, whose technical ability to sweep up data on billions of people in an instant makes pikers of his old nemeses in the FBI. His major addition to the earlier work is a fifty-foot canvas clustered with faces, pen-and-ink drawings affixed to the surface, some overlapping, in different tones, different styles. The work suggests, somehow, a police bulletin board assembling evidence of a crime.
Next in Line by Arnold Mesches.
The faces are all grim. The effect is fear, whereas in the collision of cruelty, clownishness and chutzpah of the illuminated manuscripts the effect is possibility. As subject and author, so to speak, of the latter, Arny represents a boisterous, “Screw you!” to the whole twisted mess. The faces in the crowd of the most recent collage are not broken on the wheel, not quite victims, but they might be, and Arny’s is among them.
The difference hinges on which side of the historical arc the pieces stand. The grim faces could just as easily belong to the early years of HUAC, the scoundrel time of secrecy and constrained terror. Something happened, though, in the political culture across those years of Mesches’ file, and it wasn’t just that Joe McCarthy was disgraced or that by 1972 the money had dried up for hunting reds. The game was really up six years earlier when the committee called twelve young Vietnam War protesters as hostile witnesses, and the kids and their supporters treated their inquisitors as the scorn-worthy gasbags that they were. Jerry Rubin came dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier. A young man from Stanford began his response to committee chair Joe Pool of Texas with a contemptuous “Well, Joe-Joe.” No one took the Fifth, but one witness did say, “I will not answer that question on the grounds that it nauseates me.” Another declared, “I certainly am a communist!” One, asked to swear to tell the truth, gave a Nazi salute and clicked his heels. Meanwhile, spectators hooted, jeered, applauded and behaved in every way absurd for the august chambers of Congress. They say tyranny is in trouble when the people lose their fear. Mesches’ illuminated manuscripts belong to that side of history’s arc. His faces serve best as a warning, though I’m not sure in the way he intended.
I had asked Arny about absurdity on our way to the show, in the shadow of Bushwick’s razored industrial walls, past fliers for renovated loft rentals, “Now Going for $4,867.” His eyes got bright as black marbles. “Absurdity is the key,” he exclaimed. “I used to use anger, but that doesn’t involve the audience. It doesn’t have the same questioning aspect.” In his work he has tried, he’s written, “to re-create the sense of utter instability and sheer insanity that I feel has so often permeated my years.” Those years are now. The empire is on the rocks, grasping and dangerous, but a joyless, fearful, isolated people haven’t got a hope.
JoAnn Wypijewski is co-editor of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence. She can be reached at email@example.com. “Next in Line” runs through November 2 at Life on Mars, which will host an afternoon discussion with the artist and others on October 19 (www.lifeonmarsgallery.com).