EK Interview: Van Arno


Van Arno‘s pop surrealist art had me curious from the first view. While almost cartoonish and outrageous in his aesthetic, he’s got subject matter in spades. Drawing on culture, religion, and events both historical and current, Van Arno paints scenes that are tomes. Whether you want to spend the time digesting and parsing through the content is up to you, what’s indisputable is his work is eye-catching as all hell.

Please introduce yourself, what initially attracted you to painting?
Hi, my name is Van Arno and I am a Los Angeles based figurative painter. I’ m so happy to be back in the kingdom! I was an only child and spent a lot of time alone, drawing. I was interested in all the “normal kid things” like monsters, knights, and dinosaurs.  The magic of my childhood came from the local library. I would spend hours thumbing through the books.  Their rich illustrations featured all kinds of amazing art. This really excited me.  So I would do drawings of my favorite things.


It wasn’t so much that I was interested in drawing, I was interested in drawing Frankenstein!

Your work involves a vast array of pop culture, religious, mythological references, what do these sources of inspiration mean to you?  What do you draw from them and how does your work serve as a commentary on them?
I like to bring my work in the front door, so to speak. Stories and icons that have some familiarity to all of us (or seem to) work to engage the viewer. Although I have incorporated a fair amount of religious imagery, I am not interested in challenging anyone’s beliefs. I find all faith traditions fascinating, and have no bias when it comes to “fantastical nonsense”.  I do however, love to use the bible and its saints as narratives in my work, just because of its rich tradition in western art. I love Rubens, Michelangelo, and Tiepolo so I am naturally drawn to the same imagery. 


What kind of research do you do before you begin a painting?  Your work evokes elements of folk tales, myth, and more, but rarely the whole story, how do you hope these elements will effect the viewer?  Nature versus Nurture is a piece where the discussion if fairly straightforward and accessible, it is a concept that is widely known, Mars and Jupiter Throw the Brakes, is a little less straightforward, borrowing from Roman mythology and Mayan mythology as well.  For the latter, how do you expect the melange of mythological references to play out in the mind of your viewer?
I do a lot of research. It includes a lifelong fascination with much of my subject matter. Sometimes research leads me to abandon a project, which certainly is a time saver.

Nature Vs. Nurture is a piece that combines many of my favorite elements. It’s composed as an altar piece, with an atypical mother and child in the center. The schoolmarm-ish woman embodying nurture is perched on a stack of books. The path of nurture involves effort. Nature is portrayed by Moonbeam McSwine, a character from the L’il Abner comic strip who is feral and filthy. However, both women are tethered, constrained by their respective attributes.


My Mars And Venus piece is an allusion to Mayan end times mythology and it was painted in 2012, the predicted year when the world was to end. Actually it was the end of a major calendar cycle. The calendar didn’t end (today is 9 Flint Knife.) The composition is driven by figures representing animals, plants, angels, devils, and the earth itself as a pre-Columbian woman with a turtle. The Maya believed the world rested on a turtle’s back. The central two headed figure, both warrior brute and haughty glamour girl, represent the titular two planets.


The majority of your subjects are female, and undressed to a degree, do you consider your work sexual?  How does it work with, against, play on, or discuss the fetishization of the female form by American culture?  Unless I’m mistaken, you seem to have taken great care to not depict the vagina of any subject, is there a reason for that?
As a young artist, I was NOT going to be censored! So I did fairly graphic nudity. I never did erotica, and to this day, I get invited to do erotica shows. I politely decline because artistic erotica doesn’t interest me. I do high impact figurative work. If the viewer finds it erotic, great…enjoy! I started my career making paintings of penises and pubic hair challenging anyone to stop me!  But no one did.


And I never heard an unkind word. However, a ballsy curator did once risk her job on my behalf.  The museum show featured a group of pop surrealist painters.  My work became targeted for censorship, when the guys working the press, (the production people), refused to print my painting of Jesus with an erection.  Thankfully, Juxtapoz Magazine backed me up and switched printers.  And I realized, I was never going to have a big dramatic showdown with the forces of censorship. Other people trying to support me had to do that.

I decided to try to make the situations in my work be the provocative element. Just doing graphic nudity was easy, and graphic nudity made my paintings easily dismiss-able. So I thought more about ways to make the subtext as titillating as the nudity was. And, I think, implying more and showing less is powerful. Hitchcock said something to that effect. He felt the shower scene in Psycho should be kind of vague because the viewers imagination was more horrifying than anything he could put on film.

What does nudity mean to you?  Why is it important to your art and to your message to depict your characters without clothes?  How do you think our cultural regard for nudity differs from our ability to tolerate or appreciate nudity in art?  Do you think we have a culturally healthy regard for the human body?  How could we change this, if we need to?
Societies can and do change. Looking forward, it seems hard to imagine attitudes changing. But looking back over my lifetime, attitudes have changed a great deal, about a lot of things. In art, purely aesthetic nudity (nudity because it looks cool) is a European invention. No other culture did it. Oh sure, other world cultures used nudity, to depict degradation of captured nobles, or because the ruler was celestial, or just erotica. But the Greeks decided the human body was beautiful in its own right, and worthy of admiration. No other people did that before.


Can you break down Lucifer Son Of The Morning for us?  What about the song by Jay-Z is Quixotic to you?  In the Max Romeo song that Jay-Z samples the chorus says I’m gonna send him [the devil] to outer space, to find another race.  Do you think we could expel the devil from our planet?  Is the Devil an external idea or something inherent to human beings?  Do you think cruelty can be nurtured out of our species?
I do like the violent Jay-Z song, but the Max Romeo song is almost Old Testament sounding- ‘I’m gonna put on an iron shirt, and chase Satan out of earth’.  I put the heroine in makeshift armor and the devil figure has windmill sails on his back, in reference to Don Quixote. I guess I’m suggesting the futility of this pursuit.


What are you working on at the moment?
I started doing paintings of individual figures, but I’m cropping the images tighter, so the figures are over life size but the paintings are a manageable dimension.


Do you have a favorite weather?
Cold, windy, overcast, and rainy so of course I live in Southern California! I dread summer every year.

Angela DavisMD_small