Interview with Oakland Artist, John Felix Arnold III

by Monique Delaunay on March 10, 2014

For any artist one solo art exhibition can possibly be daunting, but to prepare for three solo shows in a year, locations spanning the United States takes a high degree of skill, planning, and execution. For several months Oakland artist John Felix Arnold III has been doing just that; preparing for three solo exhibitions: first in New York’s Superchief Gallery in April, and later this year two of his Unstoppable Tomorrow series at San Francisco’s leading contemporary art galleries Shooting  Gallery and Fecal Face Gallery. Oakland Art Enthusiast caught up with the artist who has called the Lake Merritt neighborhood home for several years to talk about how hectic and yet how exciting this year is planned to be.

Arnold was admitted into a graduate program at San Francisco Art Institute in 2006, and in many ways he says, it was a sign for change and make art in a different environment. “I lived in SF for 5 years; finally found a sense of peace without the use of drugs and alcohol,” Arnold adds. “By the grace of the gods I moved to Oakland shortly after I made this important change. I felt Oakland was even more diverse, it felt more comfortable to me, like it was a bit grittier, it inspired my art the same way Brooklyn did during my time there, and had more of a working class vibe, more blue-collar lives. Parts of it reminded me a lot of things on the East Coast. I finally felt like it was a place I could call home.” Arnold was appreciative of the creative community. “Old Crow Tattoo and Gallery was probably the biggest part,” he confesses. “I built a really solid creative friendship with Terry and everyone at Old Crow, and I loved Lake Merritt the first time I went there.”

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Artist John Felix Arnold III. photo: Barret Moore

Most artists might reconsider a move from New York, arguably the US epicenter of art, to Oakland. But Arnold doesn’t feel he has to choose; it has never been a notion of east or west. Each informs his style in a way the other cannot, and he’s aware of the fundamental necessity of these disparate, but equally significant experiences on opposite sides of the nation to his practice. “There is obviously more money in New York, more art sold in New York, so it is very much a place for selling work… but the days of Deitch Projects, renegade insanity in Williamsburg and DUMBO, even the days of the fringe of Bushwick being a haven for wild things and crazy art feels intensely threatened. Oakland offers so much of what Brooklyn was in the 90s and early 2000s: it is lawless, a bit more affordable, insane and inspiring.” The synergy between the two had an unpredictable influence. “I think the two actually really exist with a lot of help from one another and inspire one another,” he says. “There is a huge dialogue between the Bay Area and New York arts and its artists. The two seem to have a lot of prominent figures who move back and forth with grace and integrity.”

Arnold’s practice is formed within a world he fashioned himself called Unstoppable Tomorrow, a post-apocalyptic world where humanity’s vices have overwhelmed and destroyed the human race. Few artists have taken otherworldly visions to a place Arnold has. He has accomplished environmental recreations with a multimedia approach through a deep understanding of how highly visual narrative works like graphic novels and Japanese art achieve the same effect. Ukiyo-E he was introduced to in elementary school he says, “create tension and weight and patterning, but still have fluid figurative elements that were understandable but also creative…” and he explains what he sources from graphic novels to achieve this compelling world: “…just like a graphic novel will suddenly focus on one character to explore and deepen the story, each piece in my body of work acts the same way. They are all directly responsible for deepening and furthering the narrative, even within becoming simpler and having visual tension at times — we have to focus before we pull back and vice-versa.” Within these Asian arts inspirations, Arnold adds personal experiences with a contemporary abstract style reflect on urban life — built-up layers, texture, decay, and movement. His palette a range of warm off whites, rusted metal, and found wood evoke his formative years in New York and North Carolina: “My memories are coated in these colors. They are wrought with rust, chipping peeling paint, abandoned houses, and gunfire at night… New York City streets in the 1980s bustle with intensity, aggression, fear and power, with a flow and speed like that of a locomotive… the Soviet Union red, cream colored painted on the side of shacks and homes in Durham.”

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Salvage materials used in Arnold’s installations photo: Barret Moore

Arnold hopes this world he’s created resonates with current human behaviors, and viewers will see parallels and metaphors he’s expressed. “Unstoppable Tomorrow creates a whole experience I hope is accessible and relatable; that anyone can look at and in the many different styles and formats and media and feelings that the work is presented and find their own story… After making it through my own struggles in life I realize that everyone embraces struggle on whatever level their life presents it. Life is about how we face adversity and pain, how we embrace the good things and praise and accomplishment as well as failure and hurt and the struggle.”

After speaking with Arnold about his practice, background, and experiences, we asked how he’s approached these three shows coming up and how location, audiences, and time all cooperate into making appropriate, meaningful work, creating thought-provoking installations (Arnold’s work is heavily installation-based) and experiences. These exhibits sound like they will be some of the most important episodes in the series, not only in furthering his practice, but also as a personal kind of catharsis. Ex Corrigia, his solo show at Superchief Gallery “gets into the dark side of humanity and the narrative…” he says. It’s deeply influenced by his time in New York before moving to the Bay Area, living in what he describes a chaotic world. “We all lived and grew up in New York in the late nineties and early 2000, and shit was pretty crazy back then,” he explains. “We all experienced 9/11 first-hand and the corporatization and mass gentrification of New York.” This show will attempt to express, he says, “the darker and more twisted the ideas of ego, of material and idol worship, power grabbing, enslavement, and subjugation of others to serve the powers that be and the gods of wrath as a commentary on the end of the era of creative freedom in New York.”

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“Gratitude and Transformation(s)” Art into Music at BRIC House Gallery photo: John Felix Arnold III

Returning to San Francisco and presenting Pilgrimage at Shooting Gallery in the spring, Arnold’s looking to express the reprieve and opportunity for temperance the San Francisco Bay Area offered when he first arrived. “I want to explore the two spring shows, Superchief and Shooting Gallery, as kind of opposite ends of the spiritual/conceptual spectrum: stubborn ego, power, and lust to a truly free acceptance and peaceful nomadic coexistence with one another and our surroundings to attain a higher state of being. I got sober in the Bay, I have been working really hard at maintaining a solid spiritual center here for a long time and being accepting, and flexible, and patient, and compassionate. This is the work for Pilgrimage.”Whereas Shooting Gallery and Superchief are planned to further the narrative, the show at Fecal Face Gallery will be focused on the series’ future and how, rather than where, Unstoppable Tomorrow is headed. Arnold believes Fecal Face Gallery’s mission presents an opportunity he doesn’t want to miss to further his style and method. “I have always loved what Fecal Face does and represents and chances they take. They get weird; they show artwork maybe other galleries question if they can get away with,” Arnold explains. “I have wanted to take some new steps in regard to the shapes of my pieces, the color palette I use, the subject matter, the mediums I involve. Fecal Face is going to a perfect opportunity to do this.”

Later, we asked Arnold how his work will eventually change, but he’s hesitant to have a conscious direction. It sounds like the artist’s only expectations lies within how to heighten his audiences’ engagement, and how their relationship with Unstoppable Tomorrow will become more meaningful. “I want to realize more pieces that are not just about the environment or the paintings, but about the viewer’s experiences with it, about the collective experience will be the art piece, and all other components become simply components.” But most importantly it seems, Arnold’s creative expectations lie more in the realm of engagement with his viewers; to make significant connections with audiences to help people realize the humanity within themselves, which is commendable. “I want people think about their place in the world through my work, I want to challenge viewers notions of their place in all things on an immediate and larger than life scale.”

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“Fujin,” mixed media on panel at Superchief Gallery image: John Felix Arnold III

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