The stunning results of the 2016 presidential election served as a turning point for visual artist Kevin Arnold, who watched it all unfold at a bar in Seattle. Having grown up in the deep Red environs of the Arkansas River Valley, but with concerns more closely aligned with Blue State progressivism, political dichotomies became catalysts for Arnold. “It gave me a chance to pour all of these past influences that had happened into my work to that point,” Arnold said. “I’m talking childhood influences, animation, cartoons, all of it — together.” Up to that point, Arnold said, his work had been representational. “The work ceased to be about nothing,” he explained, “and started dealing with the things that were concerning me. This made me question my role as an artist: What am I doing? What is this work about? Why am I making this work? Is it just for us? Is it just for our colleagues, the academics?”
Born in Van Buren to parents who didn’t care much for art, Arnold found himself back in the sleepy community of Rudy after completing an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. After moving to Crawford County, one of Arnold’s favorite things to do was eating breakfast at the local truck stop diners.
“You can really learn a lot in those atmospheres and I do that a lot wherever we’ve been,” he says. “Find a little diner, and just go and hang out. Have breakfast, kind of get a feel for the locals. Listen to what they’re saying.” Arnold’s now made his home in coastal Northern California, but he returns to Arkansas with a solo show, “Wishful Misgivings,” at Fenix Gallery in downtown Fayetteville (16 W. Center St.) Aug. 2-Sept. 30. We spoke with him ahead of that show about the work and what he sees as a rising “sense of national and cultural anxiety.”
Speaking of politicians you didn’t think would get elected, one of the paintings in “Wishful Misgivings” features Tom Cotton in clown makeup. I’d love to dive deep into creating that piece.
It became one of those ideas that was eating at me. … [Theodore Gericault’s] “The Raft of the Medusa,” if you take any art history course or art survey courses, it’s one of the paintings you’re going to talk about. You read the story of how that all happened, what went about, based on this event of the ship sinking and the people in the raft. I felt it was so representative of the United States right now. We’re this sinking raft being left to our own devices and we’ve been led astray by these political people who are just going about their way. They are going to be fine, but it’s the rest of us who are going to have to suffer.
I’m very concerned with global warming, climate change, rising sea levels, what we’re doing to the oceans. You have these people, the last ditch effort of people holding on, grasping on this kiddie pool. … In the original image, everyone is piled up, and there’s one individual reaching out trying to flag this ship that’s so far off in the distance. I wanted that in reverse, where everyone’s completely oblivious. They’re all on their phones and not paying attention. The Confederate flag is the sail of the ship. No one’s interacting with each other in the space. I came across one image of Tom Cotton that had been photoshopped to where he’s in total clown makeup. My work is built on appropriating imagery, so I took this image and the original image and intertwined the two where it looks like his face — almost like a Joker kind of thing — the makeup’s being smeared and rubbed off almost as if he was leaving a little campaign-financing fundraising thing.
As far as the style, it’s combining a lot of things. I’m experimenting with Disney animation — very influential from when I was a kid — and appropriating. Why I call this “Wishful Misgivings” is that there’s this bittersweet taking of these cherished happy images and throwing them into a context of a very harsh reality.
Growing up in Arkansas so far away from any art museums, how did you find references and dig your heels into learning about visual art?
My parents weren’t really into art, but they were Disney fanatics. I mean, obsessed. So we would take the family trip, load up the little camper van. Very Clark Griswold style; I identify with “Family Vacation” so much because that was my dad. We’d head off to Disney World every year. … When I was 4 or 5 years old, I had a huge crush on Snow White. So, meeting Snow White for the first time and she kissed me on the cheek, like, oh, my God. That blew my mind away.
As corny as it is, PBS on Sundays would show those “Bob Ross” shows. We laugh about Bob Ross, but I’d never watched anyone paint. He had these little recipes of doing it. My God, he makes that little splotch look like a rock, and he makes this painting in less than 30 minutes. Just to see someone do something like that! That was probably my introduction into painting, but it wasn’t until high school that I started thinking about it. I was highly influenced by skateboarding: just the graphics and the skateboarding magazines. All of that stuff. That got me really focused on my draftsmanship.
[The idea of becoming an artist] wasn’t until I decided when I was 19 or so, that I was going to go to Westark [Community College, now University of Arkansas-Fort Smith] and start majoring in art. It was the only thing I really loved, the only thing I really wanted to know more about.
You have mentioned that the 2016 election and the resulting works in “Wishful Misgiving” have allowed you to embrace hybridity in a way you hadn’t before.
I’ve never wanted to be direct and obvious. … I don’t want anyone to expect anything so literal that it’s going to be, “This painting is exactly about this.” They’re subtle references. The most recent painting that’s going to be in the show is called “Tomorrowland,” and it’s a black and white image of Susan Sarandon. You can’t really tell in the painting, with this sort of plant still life in front of her, but over her shoulder is a very iconic image of the Challenger exploding.
That image of the Challenger was the first image I remember from mass media. Coming home from second grade and seeing this play over and over and over and not realizing the impact of that, [and] wanting to be an astronaut at the time, but realizing that was sort of the end of the innocence of space travel. … Really, all the paintings revolve around this idea, past, present, coming together — a stark reminder about the bleakness of our age.
I learned about my identity of being an Arkansan after I left. I’m wondering if you had experiences like that. Do you miss Arkansas?
There’s so much I miss. I have a love-hate relationship with it, but I tell everyone what it’s like living in Arkansas.
I see the huge potential. If you could people working together, if you could get the rednecks off this shunning of anyone who starts talking about organic farming or their concerns about the environment — it’s gotten to the point where if you use those words you’re immediately labeled as a liberal, but these rednecks love their land as much as we do. We could be coming together over common goals and values that have just been politicized to the point where we can’t even have a conversation or come to the table to even talk about it. Coming to the table is an admission of weakness, right? That’s what they’re spinning these days. We’re homesick. I miss my home in Arkansas. I miss the peace and the quiet, and honestly, as bad as it is, I miss the diversity of opinion.