The Art of Imperfection

Painter Charles Arnoldi

Painting is dead. That was the notion Chuck Arnoldi’s art school teachers trumpeted in the late 1960s. So he found a way to create paintings that weren’t paintings.

On a fruit-foraging expedition with some friends in an orchard exposed to the highway after a devastating Malibu fire, Arnoldi was struck by the way the blackened, burnt branches of the trees looked framed against the sky. “They were like hand-drawn lines,” he says. So while his friends helped themselves to fruit from trees unscathed, Arnoldi collected branches and took them back to his studio.

He fashioned his sticks into enormous geometric paintings-cum-sculptures, connecting the branches in ways that would never occur in nature. He sometimes painted them before putting them together, sometimes afterwards, applying gobs of vibrant colors on them in works that mutated their natural design. These majestic, towering designs were less a hippie celebration of the natural world; Arnoldi’s creations almost mocked it.

Cat’s Cradle (1974), acrylic on sticks

“At the moment of Arnoldi’s first Stick paintings, the art world could be said to have had a surfeit of stick-art, none of it very interesting,” art and culture critic Dave Hickey wrote in the 2008 book Charles Arnoldi. “Arnoldi’s sticks were nothing like these. They bore with them no ‘homage to nature,’ but rather homage to the fact that what nature aspires to and always fails to achieve — symmetry, right angles and straight lines — art can casually disdain.”

If Arnoldi was a different type of artist and a different type of man, he might have been known today as “the stick guy.” But he has never stopped creating and evolving. Forty years later, he still works in his studio six days a week and is as well-known for breathtaking large-scale abstract paintings, studies of shape and space as well as color, as he is for sculpture and his chainsaw pieces, in which he attacks chunks of wood and plywood with his saw to, as he puts it, “draw in negative space.”

Greener Pastures (1984), acrylic on plywood

“When I get good at stuff, I get real suspicious. If people start to like it a lot, too, it scares the s**t out of me,” he says. “If I know something really works, I try to tweak it. There’s usually something that’s a little perverse or off about them because you don’t want to make a perfect thing. That’s the difference between craft and art.”

“You don’t want to be doing it because you have an audience,” he continues. “You don’t want to think about dollars in what you’re doing. And I gotta admit, I was a poor kid, and money means a lot to me.”

Arnoldi was born in Dayton, Ohio (“on the gray, factory side of town”), in 1946 to an alcoholic gambler father. A self-described “greaser kid” and hotrodder, he fixed up cars with often stolen parts and had minor brushes with the law for truancy and vandalism. After graduating from high school in 1964, Arnoldi drove to California with a bunch of friends with $6 to his name and a car that sputtered into the California desert then bit the dust. He did odd jobs, some for a couple from Michigan, who after seeing the screenprinted t-shirts and paintings he was doing on the sides of cars, encouraged him to enroll in art school.

Sunset (2009), acrylic on canvas

He lasted about three semesters at Ventura Junior College and then went to the prestigious Art Center in Los Angeles for two weeks. One of several instructors who took an interest in Arnoldi urged him to cut his hair, clean up his act and build a portfolio. During freshman assembly, he says, “They had graduates on stage…they were braggy Barbie dolls talking about what’s ‘good for business,’ about advertising and accessory design. I thought, ‘This is f***ed. I don’t want to do this.’”

Arnoldi’s talent paved his way into the art world despite his inclination toward rebellion. In 1969, one of his Plexiglas and sprayed-lacquer paintings won him the Young Talent Award from the Los Angeles County Museum. A frame-making and printing business started with a couple of friends led to connections and friendships. Describing meeting artists and friends Frank Stella and Jasper Johns, Arnoldi says he was young and naïve enough to take the artists up on their offers to visit and hang out in New York City. Arnoldi also counts architect Frank Gehry as a close friend, and Gehry cites Arnoldi as an inspiration in his own work.

Still, Arnoldi insists that he doesn’t consider himself successful.

“I’m relatively successful compared to 98 percent of artists on the planet, but I’ve never been in that elite, and I don’t know if I ever will be,” he explains. “But one of the things I decided a long time ago is that I was not building a career.”

A series of sculptures made out of potatoes adorn the walls of Arnoldi’s enormous studio in Venice. “A friend said, ‘I thought you’d lost your mind.’ But it’s all about the form, it’s not the fact that it’s a potato,” he explains. “When I told people about my chainsaw paintings, people were like, “What the hell do you want to do that for?” But to me, it was an idea, and I did it. It didn’t occur to me, are the critics going to like it? Are the dealers going to like it, or, are people going to buy these things? I made a chainsaw painting that was 10 by 35 feet. You know what a pain in the ass something like that is? It’s so heavy. If you thought about it logically for a minute, you wouldn’t do it.

“What I imagine, I do,” he says. “In a funny way, that’s become my style.”

For more information on Arnoldi, visit him online at charlesarnoldistudio.com.

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