John Felix Arnold III is a Bay Area artist who works in mixed media. From the fusions of found art re-workings, installations, paint, ink and live music incorporation, his current show “Past from the Blast” at the Kitsch gallery exhibits his own post-futurism items with a little musical help from Brooklyn’s Japanther. I met up with him in his current studio to talk street art, his thematic concepts of Future Antiquity, along with the creation of art in a post-Banksy world.
What medium did you first start off with?
My first picture that I ever drew my dad has hanging up. It's crayon or water color, probably crayons. My dad liked to doodle and stuff, my father is a dancer and he went to the North Carolina school for the arts and UNC Greensborough for his master degree so he did some visual art classes on the side, so we always had stuff laying around. I remember the first thing I could pick up and make a mark on something I used, apparently when I was four. My mom told me she came home one time, I had a pack of Crayola markers before they were water soluble and I picked up the purple ones while my babysitter was watching TV or something and I colored myself from head to toe and then my mom came home and I said, “Look Mom, I’m a grape!” And it took like a week to scrub it out of me so anything I could get my hands on I would use. I would make a lot of abstractions around the house, a lot of army people and Nazi tanks getting blown up.
Explain your show “Past from the Blast”.
I’ve been working on a series called the “World of Future Antiquity” and the last show we just had, “Unstoppable Tomorrow” at Old Crow with David Young and Chris Burch, was an extension of it. I started when I first moved out [to the Bay Area], when I was working on a series of drawings for an illustration gig that evolved into what I’m doing now, which are these Astroknots, these amoebic pen and ink drawings on paper that look like these storm amoebas that basically roam around, consume and destroy things that are what’s become the dominant species on earth, to replace humans as the dominant predators. Essentially it’s like our obsession and feeling of having to create new technologies constantly and losing our sense of humanity. Basically overtaking us, that point in every science fiction epic tale when the A.I. get’s it’s own mind.
It’s not so much a conscious roving creature but a concept of something we have created that wreaks havoc on us like a hurricane or tornado would, or an earthquake that would swallow us whole. So “Past from the Blast” is an installation piece that exists within this World of Future Antiquity, this post-apocalyptic setting. It’s a structure that has been built to basically shield us from these Astroknots, these roving storms that are out there and also a structure to serve as a shelter from that. It’s kind of like what a cave was in Neanderthal times, there are surfaces to draw and paint on to record what happened in this kind of historical chronology. So there are these Astroknots that are painted or drawn on with whatever materials that were found when you have to go out into this world to find food and things like that, whatever we could bring back into the structure is used to document these changes and also in a narrative form to show people who have been involved in this world.
There is also going to be an altar piece ‘cause we have been reset and we have to return to more of a tribal sensibility. We can’t exist the way we do now, ideas of deities and I guess giving praise or appreciating for what we do have, but also giving some sort of recognition for what has happened. People inevitably create altars and ways to make sacrifices to the gods. I wanted to play that up because I have always been interested in altars and people’s different spiritual practices through the use of altars, so it's going to have an altar piece in it. It also worked as a stage for Japanther to perform and also some other bands Omori, First Family, Great Willow and Black Jeans. It’s basically a way for me in the here and now to give thanks to everything that people leave behind on the street that I can make beautiful art work with, and it’s a way for me to personally create something that I think is beautiful, that gives me comfort and appreciation for the fact that we have this beautiful world and we are so out of control as a species that we don’t consciously have a disregard for it we just throw it away without even realizing it.
A lot of Japanther’s music is very philosophical and it questions the system in society and even their sound is a lo fi experimental sound that is rough and rugged and has a lot of energy and to me it gives praise to old recording techniques, old hip-hop samples and a lot of rock n’ roll music that we grew up listening to. So to me the whole show is a big thank you for me to the power’s that be to actually create something like this.
Like some de-evolutionized, going back to the big bang type of thing with found art objects put on an altar pedestal of sorts, and your own handmade objects?
Yeah, it’s like a cut out of this post-apocalyptic world that I get to kind of play inside of you know? I grew up reading a lot of comics and a lot of stuff to confront this idea and not realizing as a kid that this was some serious shit. I mean we’re inevitably heading toward something. This is my way to thank all of my inspirations to make art, it’s a spiritual kind of practice for me, it’s something I get to do to thank, say Japanther for doing what they do. I’ve know them since’ 98, those guys Matt and Ian, they have been amazing creative forces in this world and it’s like a way for me to work with them and give praise for their music.
Now you met Japanther when you were in Brooklyn
Yeah, at Pratt, we all went to the Pratt Institute together.
How do you marry the sound and visual components with your work?
Since my parents are dancers, I grew up with a lot of really weird music, across the board, like shit most kids don’t grow up with their parents playing, everything from James Brown to the Cars, to the Police. The first song I ever memorized was from my dad, it was Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” it was the first song I memorized all the words to, and I could spit it verbatim. Tons of Al Green, a bunch of stuff I don’t know the name of, my dad was into lots of soul. My mom was into bluesy rock and also new wave. She played a lot of New Order, old Enya and weird shit like that and also Dire Straits and the Grateful Dead. My dad moved to New York in ’86 so he was into what hip hop was because he grow up being inspired by soul music, r n’ b and rock n’ roll, he grew up in the Zeppelin era and everything.
So I grew up with this huge melting pot of sound influence and then I developed around when I was 13 in ’93 when the big hip hop renaissance happened and that’s all sample based and it’s interesting now to look back at it and it’s all this beautiful music my parents were listening to way back when being reused for my generation, being appropriated and put together in a completely different way. I’m not going to say it’s a more intense delivery, but for me at the time and even now, it’s a more intense way having those sounds mixed together.
My father is really big into modern art, contemporary art and a lot of old renaissance art, he would go on tour and come back with a lot of paintings from the 1500s from Italy, he had a lot of Cy Twombly paintings, I love Cy Twombly, hanging around the house. He lived in New York in the late 80s and was all around Connecticut and knew a lot of painters who did abstract landscapes, really beautiful painting. And I was really into comic books and traditional Japanese print art when I was real young for some reason. I got to Singapore and Taiwan when I was 7 years old, I got to go on tour with my dad, so that implanted this Eastern Asian aesthetic inside me, plus living in New York we have so many cultures thriving. So I guess I could say my work is similar to the way a lot of that hip-hop music in the early 90s was created, it’s like I find things in the street and I take them with me to my work place and reassemble them.
Like I have pieces from this organ I found in Oakland that was all beaten down and I took all these broken pieces and beautiful objects and created a new format for them. My paintings are kind of similar, I just got back into doing really, heavily expressive painting, it was kind of like visual sampling. The first Astroknots series kind of came together from taking different parts from old prints, old Hokusai old Yoshitoshi and Kuniyoshi prints and stuff, comic book images, photographs of wars, stuff going on in Sudan and in the Middle East, tanks and mechanized shit and what not and I would draw a piece and look at another reference and draw another piece coming out of that section and they turn into these beautiful but also horrific amoebic forms. And it really is the same concept, taking these raw elements as if it were music where you would take a soul song and blending it with another piece until you have a whole new entity.
And my parents being choreographers, they work in a movement pattern in a similar way. I grew up seeing dance choreography right in front of me while running around in the rehearsal studio, so I got to see them take all these different body language and movements and hone in and extract different ones to create a dance piece. The two, they’re all married synonymously no matter what you do.
You make your own music too, right?
Yeah, it’s kind of like my hobby. I got some alias productions names that I’m using, I released an EP at my last show, Unstoppable Tomorrow Volume 1, the EP was called Press to Continue. I produced the whole thing, my buddy Thomas Crown and I rap on one of the songs, it was a lot of fun to make. Making music to me, ‘cause I’m by no means a musician, it’s what I do when I don’t want to make art that night. Making art for me is very intense, it’s my passion in life, it’s what drives me and sometimes I have to take a break from it but I don’t want to feel like I’m doing nothing.
Music is a very fun and free way to sit down and work with a format I know nothing about and have no training in, so I don’t have any framework or sort of idea or ideals behind it, like the structure has to be a certain way so I teach myself from listening to other songs about song structure and stuff like that, I have a blast making it. It’s really when I want to get out of my head, sit down and do something creative that I don’t care what the outcome is like I just sit down and have fun. I’ve been doing it for a long time too, I’ll definitely say that one of my best friend’s from school from New York who lives out here now, we started messing around with Fruity Loops and Reason about 10 years ago and all that stuff with Reason stuck with me and I’ve been using it ever since.
You’re also doing more figurative painting work too, right?
Yeah, I wasn’t doing direct figure work when I moved here, it was definitely all those amoebic Astroknots drawings but I’ve gotten back into real figurative painting, really expressive work, I have some people that model for me and stuff. I’m doing a portrait piece on David Young V right now, he did one at his Gallery Three show where he threw me in one of his pieces, it’s like thank you David Young. But you know I’m sure this is how Frank Miller and other people work, people around them inspire what they’re making, some people around me I see as the survivors of this future world because they’re not necessarily treading the same way that some of these big industry cats are treading. Also their stories are amazing; we all have our friends because they’re very amazing to us.
Well you seem to be in good hands with friends like Japanther.
They’re such an inspiration to me. It really does turn into a big kind of gathering. I remember I was at Rincon in late 2009, it was my ex-girlfriend’s birthday, September 11 2009, and it was Japanther and Ninjasonik, and it got so out of control that the freakin’ owner walked on stage with a taser and had it risen in the air and threatened to tase people, it was awesome, epic and Ian (from Japanther) got up and was like, ‘Watch out people, we don’t wanna get tased,” and they just kept on playing and there was no hatred in the air it was all love.
I was curious to hear your thoughts on the post-Banksy art world, what do you feel is the next creative movement and how do you define your own work?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, one thing I found really interesting when I was back in New York, you know I don’t know where street art and graffiti art lie with each other and all that kind of stuff but what I can definitely say is that this past trip to New York I saw a resurgence of street bombing, real graph bombing, letters, throwies, tags, hardcore vandal destruction. I didn’t see a lot of street art up anymore it almost looked like there was a campaign or something, I mean I didn’t see as much wheatpasting, stencil work, it seemed that graph writers were out crushing everything. That was just my perception of it. I hadn’t been there for a year, I could have caught it on a certain week when writers had gone out on a campaign and destroyed everything and you know maybe a few stencil dudes put up stencils and wheat pasting but it felt there was a lot less of that, it was just writers going out painting on shit.
I don’t know, for me personally, kind of what you were saying in this image writing era of post-Warhol, post-Banksy, there’s a lot of this let’s use it, change it again, use it, change it again and a lot of it is a kind of response to simplistic, clever image heavy work that is found on the street today. We’re living in an era that is so fast and so saturated, ever since the streetware thing cracked the bridge between limited edition stuff, artist edition stuff, apparel ware, it’s all kind of bridged together, graph art meets street art meets fine art. You got artists now that are like, ‘I’m a graffiti inspired fine artist,’ it’s just bizarre.
Personally, it's helped me really find myself in my painting again. Like I said, ever since I was a kid I’ve been a very expressive painter. I was into digital design when I graduated from school but I always loved sitting down and doing figurative painting work and then I get into highly detailed, really anal retentive mode, with those Astroknot pieces, and now it’s all coming full circle from my childhood, so I am very happy to be existing in an era when everything is very design heavy, very image heavy and kind of clever art. Just going at the canvas, or a piece of a paper, or making a big crazy installation. Most of it is one the fly, not planned out. When I make a painting now I have an idea, or a base it on a figure, or I visually sample, take a comic book character, panel or explosion and I start with what I feel is the essence of the piece I am making and let it work itself out through me.
I guess this image heavy stuff has helped me, it’s freeing for me, it lets me feel like a I am channel of creative energy coming through the universe you know, I can just bug out at night and it allows me to paint again and not think so much about what each mark is going to look like. It allows me to build something in a linear way, to start something and watch it evolve however weird of a path that it takes and I’ll have no preset notion when that will be finished. I’ll start a piece and then all of a sudden, okay, it’s done. Some people with very design-heavy work, and like you were saying, post-Banksy street art kind of stuff, for them the image has to be geometrically a certain way, designed a certain way and stuff like that. It’s given me the ability to get into my painting as a form of expression again and not to have words that mean this and that or an image that means something specifically. All falls under this Future Antiquity, Past from the Blast world that I have created that I see our society going toward and it’s a way for me to paint about how I feel about it, and about the relationships I have in the present, to explore people I hold dear to me in my life.
John Felix Arnold’s show Past from the Blast featuring Japanther at the Kitsch Gallery in the Mission 3265 17th St Suite 204 (17th and Capp next to Uptown) (Closed)