Eye in the Sky
Surveillance and the Art of Arnold Mesches
Date Written: 2014-10-17
Year Published: 2014
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX16791
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.
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.
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.”
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.”