Editorial: Pollack and Punk Rock – a conversation with Skip Arnold - Publication: Dart - Date: Fall 2002

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From the old money conservatism of the Geffen Contemporary to the fashionable pretense of Chung King Road, Los Angeles downtown arts scene has a colorful cast of thousands, from legions of MFA hopefuls, to persistent autodidacts and sinking dillusionals. Bad boy performance artist Skip Arnold shines from the flock, exuding a definite air of legitimacy from the dingy walls of his 7th street studio.

And while he may appear to be just another warehouse dwelling artist scrimping for rent and gin money, Arnold is far closer to the real deal than most, lecturing at Art Center, Pasadena and consistently skipping around the globe as a performance artist in residence.

As a performance artist, Arnold underscores sensationalism and the power to shock. His body as art, he brandishes a metaphorical scattergun approach, rhetorically questioning gender politics, masochism and exhibitionism.

Having spent several evenings with Arnold, his unflappable candor is always refreshing. Its almost endearing to hear a successful artist confide the machinations of the mundane rather than pepper his stance with arrogance and pretension. He’s more consumed by everyday life struggle than recounting former glories. Close to tears the day of our interview he tells of losing both his full time teaching job at Art Center college and the studio he has occupied in east LA for ten years due to council rezoning.

Adjourning from the studio to a local gallery bar I learn much about his checkered past. An eternal maverick, Arnold perpetually conjures wondrous snippets of information, from his stock car driving father, who he regards as one of the earliest conceptualists to influence his work, to his awkward adolescence in upstate New York, to a career as a male prostitute and dalliances with heroin.

Arnold’s touching confessional is the very antithesis of his public image as a performance art bad boy, and its no wonder he resents it. Still its a label he’s nurtured (whether accidentally)throughout his career as a chain smoking, motorcycle riding hedonist with a penchant for gin martinis and contraband vice. Maybe his glowing intellectualism and taste for dinner parties can help him shake it at a graceful 45, yet a niche public image can be good for publicity.

With a focus on himself (or his body) as central to his work, Arnold’s performance art antics are stuff of legend, placing him in the same league as the likes of Chris Burden, and Fluxus.

"I’m not a suitcase performance artist. I always want to do something that is fresh to the place, I do something once and that’s it. It can be very self indulgent, though its not about making something. Arnold confides his manifesto, "the emphasis is on space and how/what my body does or can do. The work ranges from being extremely physical to extremely passive".

Arnold says he also aims to explore the relationships between the self, place, and particular time. "To explore fundamental gestures and concepts, my interest is the image and nothing else. I work in media that are evanescent, transient, consumed in passing, not collected. What is common to all my work is "Skip". Skip is the artwork, the act of doing, my actions, my choices."

"When I first became involved in making art I wanted to be a painter. Five years of school in a few different programs, and after that I rapidly became involved in film and then video made me open my eyes wide which saw me graduate from painting to collage film and video then onto performance."

Testing boundaries and pushing buttons is central to Arnold’s work, as is testing endurance and rejoicing in the absurd. In one video taped performance, he perched like a gargoyle on a building edge, parodying architectural sculpture. Another, titled "hood Ornament" saw him tied naked to the hood of a semi trailer which motored through the streets of Sun Valley in California.

Shirtless and irreverent, with shaven head and punk rock sneer, another video based piece saw repeated screamed narrative, "Girls In Bikinis G\et Fucked All Day." Another, titled "I Want A Girlfriend," involved a coast to coast road trip on a quest to meet assorted women who responded to magazine and billboard advertisements for a new partner. After phoning a hotline, the stipulation for meeting involved interested parties paying for dinner.

In 1996 Arnold circumnavigated the Bermuda Triangle waiting to penetrate another dimension in a speed boat. More recent performances have seen him displayed naked in glass cases, and plastic wrap inside and outside various international galleries, shower naked for four days at the Grammercy Artfare and pose as a human welcome mat at this years’ ArtBasel fair in Switzerland.

April 2002, the Full Nelson Palace Theater show in Los Angeles saw the performance of a piece called Part Of The Cast. The exercise involved the application of makeup in a ritual mimicking the act of applying makeup before going on stage. Seen through the view of a bulb lit dressing room mirror, Arnold removes his shirt, shaves, and applies makeup, with his actions then broadcast to the lobby of the venue via a closed circuit security monitor.

"I liked the anticipation of the piece. It said a lot about masochism and performance and was based on the premise of a suitcase and going from show to show presenting it. I was not seen by anyone in person until the end of the show. It was a quintessential statement about the notion that without the makeup you are nothing, no one knows who you are.

Throughout the performance, I was only visible to viewers via the long shots and close up views of the monitors, it was like making a transition The piece saw me grow a little, it was a leap from the sedentary, it broke open something for me to investigate. I\t was hard emotionally, but it was something valuable."

For the Art Unlimited component of ArtBasel, Arnold was representative of a human welcome mat. He did so by lying face down at ground level, housed in a ventilated transparent chamber installed by the fair’s organizational committee at a cost of $20,000.

"There were several magazine reviews that alluded to the piece being thematically based on the whole notion of masochism, and martyrdom, the artist being walked on etc etc. It really wasn’t about that at all, I simply looked at it as being a human welcome mat. the welcome mat it really contained a lot of humor. Part of the magic of the piece was trying to make it work while trying to downplay the perception of masochism, it was a real conversation piece.

"Welcome mat did reflect the notion of the mental and physical being diametrically opposed to one another. People such as Plato talked about the notion of the body being the jail of the mind, though it wasn’t necessarily about that at all".

"The Swiss have a great sense of precision. It got continual attention both on opening day and from people coming out of the fair at night, which was the busiest time. The organizers Really made sure I attained high profile press coverage. The performance was on every national TV station in western Europe, and made assorted front pages. The important thing was that I got to greet everyone who came along to the fair and I was well catered for."

"Fair’s such as art Basel are probably the most significant around, they offer an opportunity for work to be presented that often otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to be. Its an extremely important fair, featuring some of the world’s best artists and galleries."

Academia and intellectualism form a key component of Arnold’s work and everyday life. Since 1997, he has worked as a "quasi mentor/ psychiatrist," at the institution, though recently had his hours cut and his contract was not renewed. This he attributes to changes to the structure and teaching dynamic of the institution.

The artworld, nowadays is made up of too many dilettantes and "ready made" artists who are ruining this world Arnold says. Our world right now wont tolerate people who get dark or twisted. I don’t mean via drugs or alcohol, but just in terms of their personality. Our society has become so guarded and it doesn’t have the time or patience . When you see people at openings or out in public or in Flaunt magazine, they are trying so hard to be cool that they are not conveying anything they are not loose.

In terms of educational institutions, "its not more or less political or jaded than it once was, though nowadays everyone seems to be happy with the way things are. The biggest change over the last ten years is the fact that we now pay attention to the third world.".

"There are also less schools than there used to be that offer BFA’s, that basically means a bachelor of fine arts in a particular discipline which is a lot cooler than a BFA in general arts, which is a bit of a loss."

"Undergraduate land is just as rigorous as it was when I studied their enthusiasm and work ethic is just as strong. These people have resigned themselves that in order to get a teaching job or a gallery, they need an MFA, which is of course ludicrous."

Asked who are his mentors or key sources of inspiration, Arnold offers an unpredictable list. The people that ended up influencing me were the likes of Lou Reed and often it had nothing to with art, but more with living, just an attitude. I loved glam and Iggy pop, but I thought Lou Reed was quintessential, as was Jackson Pollock, Dali and Arteau, in the sense of recognizing your dark side. My father was also a huge influence he was the most conceptual man I ever met. I also like what Robert Downie Junior and Charlie Chaplin do or at least did".

And of the future? "When I was studying with my peers, it was expected that we would have families and buy houses. If you would have asked me ten years ago where I would be now, I’d probably say I’d have a big house in Malibu with a dog."

"For the amount of work that I’ve done, that’s what I really expected to have. Two years ago had seven credit cards, now I’m getting evicted. Though I get to ride a motorcycle and drink vodka which is pretty good, though riding around other parts of the world things aren’t quite so good..

"Going to places like China blow my fucking brain away. Beijing Square is amazing, it’s the biggest square in the world. I pulled out my 16mm camera and within minutes I had 45 people around me. The trip there was really a journey into relearning and earning a sense of humility."

Arnold will perform in Slovakia in October and open a video festival at Christine Coonig Gallery, Vienna titled ‘Stuff from LA and other places,’ running October 11, 2002-June 2003. He will also perform in Montreal for Art Metropol and 7A11D late 2002.

Written by Craig Stephens

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