One of the artists on my press bucket list, I’ve wanted to write up a feature on John Felix Arnold III since I met him at a café show in Bernal Heights three years ago. At that time, I was actively publicizing the works of artists showing at the now deceased Babylon Falling bookstore, which included David Young V, Robert Bowen, David Ball, and C3. Unfortunately, I never quite got the chance to cover Felix at the bookstore, because I only became aware of his work directly after his show had ended. With Old Crow Tattoo in Oakland, California actively showing Felix’s work, thankfully, I’ve gotten another chance to chat with him about what inspires his expansive, post-apocalyptic installations. I stopped by his show “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” to get the shots and make up for lost time.
Buckle your seatbelts, readers, this interview is equally as expansive as John Felix Arnold III’s work, but the artist’s introduction to his world is immersing. I hope you enjoy this hearty read about this dynamic artist.
Are you originally from the Bay Area? How did you get into doing art?
I just got into Japan to my friend Ken Minami’s house in Tokyo. I have been going nonstop for like five or six days, so here we go! To answer your first question, no, not at all from the Bay Area, but Oakland feels a lot like home, or a perfect middle ground between Durham and Brooklyn. I was born in Durham, North Carolina. My parents are both dancers and split when I was two so I grew up in some pretty insane households. My father got into Pilobolous dance company and moved to New York City when I was about six, so I was in New York quite a bit from age six until about ten. Then I was back in NC until college, whence I moved to Brooklyn in 1998 to study at Pratt Institute. I graduated from Pratt in 2002 with a communication design degree and then stayed in New York for four more years. I got into SFAI for Graduate School in 2006 and dropped out by the end of my first year. I was about to leave the Bay when I met Sean Stewart from Babylon Falling, had a solo show in December of 2007, and have been based in the Bay ever since.
I don’t have a specific memory of what got me into art. They say some people have been doing whatever it is they are good at or destined to do since being in the womb, and I think that is a pretty appropriate description for me. Apparently I have been drawing I could literally put my fingers in the sand, or mud, or potting soil, or bath bubbles, or pee, or blood, or peanut butter, or avocado mash, or any other surface that is conducive to creating lines and form in. If I had to say what within my memory got me into art, I would say my fathers crazy abstract art collection hanging in his apartment, comic books, “The Rats of Nihm”, illustrated King Arthur books and books about knights, dragons, and ninjas, Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, Star Wars, my parents dance rehearsals and performances, graffiti in New York City in the 80s, weird outsider art in rural North Carolina, broken down rusted out tobacco warehouse, rusted decaying dilapidated buildings in New York, and pretty much anything visually stimulating during my early years where I began to learn hand eye skills and develop memories. Textures complimented with graphic content I guess is what I was exposed to at a very young age so a lot of that plays into the mix.
What is your art about? Several of your pieces appear to be influenced by graphic novels; is there any underlying story that ties all of it together? Is it a linear story, or is it just a theme open to interpretation?
That’s a trident of a question! It is about where I see the human race headed if we do not become aware and proactive in regard to our place on the earth, and our place in the universal energy that weaves us all together. It is about relationships, love, sacrifice, gratitude, spirituality. It is about commonsense, dialogue, growth, honesty, respect, intensity and serenity, chaos and order. It is about balance and passion. It is about creation and destruction, ways of seeing, ways of being. It is about whatever the viewer may take from it and how it affects them and their actions and thoughts upon and after viewing and experiencing it. I could go on for a long time on that one.
Yes there is an underlining story to it all. If people are really interested in the storyline I will tell them, but I prefer to allow the audience to create their own understanding, mythology, reasons, and explanations when experiencing it at first then explain my storyline to see where and if we match up in our thinking and develop a conversation from there. I can always give them my storyline, but its awesome to see a viewer’s creativity in their own interpretation bubble up based on how it works into the context of their own life experiences and mental reference library. So yes it is a linear storyline for me personally, but at the same time it is a direct conversation, or way for me to have a dialogue with our world today and explore things that affect me and I believe affect all of us. So therefore it is also a larger theme open to interpretation in a broader sense of the place of art as a communicator and influencer amongst humanity. If it couldn’t be both, then to me it would be unsuccessful art. It has to ride and engage that duality.
What most influences your work? (art, film, music) Who are your favorite, and most influential artists?
Damn, I can’t really pinpoint what exactly most influences my work. Life, Megan. I could name thousands of details and specific points of reference that are personal to me and inform my work, but the best way to sum it up is that life as an organism most influences my work. I am not saying that to sound like a cop out, or to try to overly mystify and get out of answering the question because the reality is that the world we live in is infinitely complex, yet infinitely simple at the same time. The push and pull between the individual mind and collective consciousness of all of us creating and experiencing a complex reality that weaves us together and inevitably breaks down to a pretty simple set of principles and ways of being, in my experience, is what really influences me. I guess the way that the tapestry of interconnectedness and experience between us all continues on and how it can really always be just as simple as it is complex and vice versa, is a constant source of influence and material. As far as visual artists (I’ll keep it to visual because to open the labyrinth of musical, philosophical figures etc would take pages) I have a lot. Katsuhiro Otomo, Magritte, Edward Keinholz, Jack Kirby, Kent Williams, Bill Sienkiewicz, Dondi, David Ellis, Doze Green, The Rammellzee, Yoshitoshi, Kuniyoshi, Hokusai (Hokusai is the fucking man!), H.R. Geiger, Twombly, Rauschenberg, Duchamp, Twist, Steve Powers, Margaret Kilgallen, Swoon, Monica Canilao, Maya Hayuk, Christopher Burch, Erlin Geffrard, Tomokazu Matsuyama, Emory Douglas, the list just could go on and on and on.
Should I Stay or Should I Go at Old Crow Tattoo & Gallery is a continuation of Unstoppable Tomorrow, another post-apocalyptic themed show of your work. Can you tell us about Unstoppable Tomorrow, and how Should I Stay or Should I Go expands on the story, and continues it?
Yes, for sure. I have been using the term “post reset” or ” after the reset of civilization” rather than “post apocalyptic” as of late. The apocalypse (and I have used the term “post apocalyptic” for a long time definitely) has very negative connotations for me personally at this point. It’s my own issue and I know its kind of ridiculous but I associate that word with the religious context for some reason and I am not a big fan of the Jesus with a sword of fire destroying everyone with laser beam eyes and a horse made of four horseman all made of lava and flash grenades and shit. Actually that sounds awesome, I might haveta make that a sculpture, lol. So anyway back to the point. I like this idea of “post reset” because a reset is when you take something that is working a certain way, or not working the best way anymore, and put it back to default, back to basics. So even though the world of Unstoppable Tomorrow does in fact take place after the “end of the world as we know it” it is really a new beginning. It is up to the viewer to decide if those people are lucky or unlucky. And those people within the mythology of the world I have created have different views themselves on that same idea. Some think they are cursed while others see it as a chance to start anew. Some feel cleansed of how out of control and mindless and souless our civilization had become, while others feel vengeful, frustrated, and stubborn.
“Unstoppable Tomorrow” itself is my “World of Future Antiquity”. A world in which the blindness and self imposed denial of the corporate state had created these amoebic creatures that were experiments in weaponry as well as genetic evolution that the researchers lost control of. They are called “Astroknots” and they turned into these enormous amoebic, storms of consumption and destruction that literally move across the landscape like tornadoes and hurricanes and just devour and ingest and consume everything in their paths. It is really a commentary on our current situation of having completely lost control of the rate of production and consumption that our society is now based on, and how we are very literally spiraling toward the end of times as we know them, or the “reset of civilization”. I see this as the inherent result of a universal thinning of spiritual connectedness within our population, both of self and with the greater “we”. Each volume, or show in the world of Unstoppable Tomorrow deals with survivors of this reset that are now no longer the dominant species of earth and now have to rethink and create forward from the charred and absolutely demolished remains of what was.
“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” focuses on a specific tribe of people that are the remaining survivors of what was once a neighborhood in a major metropolis. Certain members of the tribe truly believe that their purpose in life is to build from the ashes of the dead, and stay put as to show respect to the dead. They believe it is a test of their will and determination to stay in this. They feel that they will one day take revenge on their destroyers because they are meant to be there and control the earth. Other members of the tribe seem to believe that this is finally the sign that they were too ignorant to see before, that it is time to change. They see a new way of life unfolding and must search for other survivors and begin with a fresh and open perspective, a new chapter in the way humanity exists on earth. Every piece in the show deals with items, settings, and actual characters in this tribe that are involved in this dialogue of whether to stay or go. I also love the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, it’s classic and catchy so I thought it would be a perfect title to spark positive memories in people that could possibly view this is a pretty heavy, or grim exhibition.
How is “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” different from your previous shows, and how has it pushed you as an artist?
The altar installation actually involves a sculpture piece, and to date it is the first sculpture I have ever unveiled. I really feel that from concept to execution it is a solid piece. I have stayed away from sculpture for a long time purely out of fear, so creating a sculpture that is then a part of an installation that involves the viewer in an activity is pretty rad to me. It was also cool to see a lot of my 2-D techniques flow very fluidly and seamlessly on a 3-D object.
The paintings and drawings in the show are definitely much more developed and far more realized than work from even six months ago. The movement and the iconic subtleties are much more developed. I am using different types of sizes, frames, layouts, and presentation. I had more fun with this show than any I have ever created, and within that I pushed my boundaries as an artist further that I ever have to date. Simply out of just wanting to see the things in my head come to life I had to figure out how to develop certain process on the fly that I have never even embarked on. I did more research, I painted more passionately, I thought harder and more intensely on the conceptual fabric and architecture of the experience and message.
I haven’t done an environmental installation on quite the same scale as this before and definitely not with the same level detail. It involves a sound piece dialogue that the viewers are supposed to sit down and listen to in chairs around a table that would be occupied by the characters in the dialogue as they argue and get ready to cook creamed corn with their newly created energy cubes. The sound piece includes recorded sound bytes from my late friend Alex Morris, and is one of his last recordings ever so it holds a special place in my heart. The environmental piece actually creates a geometric shape in the gallery as a whole and really has taken my idea of breaking the viewers perception of what is the gallery reality and what is the imaginary future world to the next level. It has an 8ft painting called “Losing a Friend” and an organ built into it. It even flexes the concept of what could be perceived as looking at history museum diorama 800 years in the future of events that happened 200 years from now to a whole new level, and challenges the viewers ability to break down their concepts of time and space. I finally truly deconstructed the idea of a graphic novel from the pages of my mind and reconfigured it and illustrated it in 3-D and 2-D, with sound, performance, and activity as a full, multi tiered experience. I went hard on this one. I pushed and now am pretty damn proud of it.
This show is a multi-media, interactive art experience that includes sound and performance art. Is this something that you do a lot of, or a new direction you’re heading?
I have done a few, a yes definitely I continue to move in this direction. Every show has explored a different recipe of these elements and every single one from here on out will be a different exploration of how these elements, and others that I have not explored yet, can come together and create an artistic experience that will take the viewer on a conceptual and literal ride through a different way of experiencing art. I want to develop collaborative projects with specific performers as well as focus on more solo oriented work in the future. I am on tour with ken South Rock doing an experimental collaborative performance show right now and will be organizing similar shows in California and New York on a larger scale.
Can you tell us about some of the trials and tribulations of doing a multi-media show like this? How did you begin to conceptualize it, and how did it all come together?
There aren’t a lot of trials and tribulations as long as the people you are working with have their shit together and are not flaky or unreliable. That is true with any endeavor though. A couple of the early shows I did in this vein were victim to an integral player not living up to their word and really dropping the ball in a major way. But I am blessed to be surrounded by really amazingly dedicated, tenacious, open minded, talented, and trust worthy individuals in all walks of my life so I was able to realize both shows to the fullest, regardless of the actions, or lack their of, of one person. it’s all about making good on your word and doing your absolute best to in every endeavor. It was stressful and pretty testing at times, but everything works out how it is supposed to in the end. I am just really happy that I went through some pretty tough moments early and that I proved that I intuittively know how to deal with it on a professional and personal level.
As far as conceptualizing it, it was always an idea that I have had since I first moved to the Bay. I left NY literally the month Swoon’s solo show was coming up at Deitch Projects, and I caught wind that Japanther performed out of the back of a U-Haul at her opening in the middle of the street. This inspired me hugely and I vowed to, one day, work something like that into the actual conceptual framework and experience of one of my shows, and to work with Japanther. I decided to take it to another level and make the musicians be a part of the world of Unstoppable Tomorrow as ritual leaders and the audience actually playing the part of survivors giving praise for being alive, surrounded by my artwork that illustrates the specific part of the storyline the show takes place in. Japanther and I did a show and the rest is history. That has spawned this show and my future shows to come. I saw Swoon for the first time in years recently and thanked her very much for the inspiration behind this. This latest installment had Him Downstairs, a husband and wife duo, perform as characters from the storyline for a crowd that suddenly realized they had become a part of Unstoppable Tomorrow.
What are some of your favorite works in this show?
Well for reasons stated previously, I love the Beaver Skull Motorcycle piece but I will expand on that in the next question. Honestly, I really like all the work in the show. I am incredibly proud of every piece for very different reasons and not sure if I really have favorites. I like that all the work is very expressive and raw, yet still is very steeped in draughtsmanship and technique and line. “Into Action” is very warm and inviting through building up form and soft textures and color. The smaller pieces of the “In Memory Of.. series are big breakthrough for me. I have been making these big pieces in that style of building the assemblage panels and feeling like I have to convey everything in the world in those paintings, so to cut those panels down to smaller pieces was a great exercise in exploring one individual thought, or scene at a time. The installation itself I dig, it is on a scale that Old Crow has never seen, and to me it really feels like I can lose myself in my imagination when I sit in it and listen to the audio piece. “Endurance Winds” rocks pretty hard on a last note, it is just intense and I think I really captured the tension, movement, and intensity of the show title.
The press release mentions a decaying motorcycle, and it sounds like this is an exciting piece! Can you tell us about it?
I am sitting in Japan right now as stated previously, and I just got a bunch of Facebook love on that piece, I am exhausted and it’s great to see people are feeling it. It is titled “The Great Debate”. I made a lot of tank, and fighter jet, and Gundam robot model kits as a kid, and I painted Warhammer and Dungeons and Dragons figures. It was like painting and sculpting a giant custom model kit that is totally bad-ass, and is fully realized conceptually on an adult level. I felt like a grown ass, man child making it. It was fun, and is a catalyst for a whole new series of pieces that will be developing from here on out.
I pushed myself big time with “The Great Debate” piece. Here is the conceptual breakdown on it. It is a motorcycle so it represents movement automatically to the viewer. Yet it is a stationary part of an altar so herein it immediately creates a sort of mental and emotional tension within the viewer. It is supposed to be the actual bike that the savior of the tribe, Shy, road when she led the Astroknot away from her people so as to save their lives. It was recovered by the survivors and turned into an altar so as to pray to their savior every day. While it is meant to move things from point A to point B, it is now an altar and is stationary. But that is not to say that when people gaze upon it it does not evoke the idea or feeling that they should move forward, move to a new destination, or even open their minds to progress. It is an object that incites memories of their friend sacrificing herself to save them, which is also a direct result of the collective problems that humanity had let build up to the point of the reset. So it creates psychological tension in the viewer that raises the question “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”. It even has a beaver skull in the headlight. Beavers build dams and nests, they build things that become parts of their ecosystem. Yet herein this beaver skull is in a motorcycle, creating the idea that anywhere it goes it can build something, yet can always relocate if need be.
I got the bike frame from this awesome bike mechanic shop on 17th and Folsom and the skull from Paxton Gate. Big thanks to Paxton Gate as I will continue to go there to get animal bones and creature parts. I wanted the bike to feel totally decaying and worn out, to feel like bone, like a living organism at the same time. And I really wanted the skull in the headlight to look like it was or had been alive, like tumorous amoebic living bone, a part of one of the Astroknots that had actually fallen from the sky and died and was put in Shy’s bike to finish the cyclical nature of the altar. The builders of the altar then painted the story on the sides. My signature abstract narrative line work that is seen in almost every piece I do is painted ever so subtly on the sides of the chassis around the seat so as to give the impression that everywhere this bike could go it will always tell the story of its struggle. Even the license plate is made of a small rectangular wood assemblage panel with a specific painting language that reappears in the show to tie the whole entire exhibition together through this piece. Like “the Dude” in “The Big Lebowski” says, “it really ties the room together”. Lastly, as an interactive altar piece the viewer is asked to practice a ritual in which they pray for lost loved ones or loved ones they are currently worried about. The piece is dedicated to my friend Alex that I past away. Dedicating the piece to the late Alex Morris seemed only right and I am glad that I was able to include something this powerful in his memory within the exhibition.
With performance and conceptual art there’s an amount of consideration for how the piece translates for viewers. What drives you to convey this particular concept, and what do you want viewers to walk away thinking about, or evaluating?
This work and concept seems to come to me very organically, very naturally. I tried to force life to do what I wanted for so long and control things so intensely that I finally had to sort of give up and just let myself be and create things. I guess I am trying to say I finally learned how to be okay with life on life’s terms at some point and making art finally became a joy and a natural, flowing process for me after that. I often feel like a channel for something way bigger than myself who was put here to create the work to communicate ideas with people everywhere.
When I make art I send progressive and action based energy out there into the ether. It feels amazing to create something that will spawn enjoyment in multiple sense and engage people on a mental, emotional and spiritual level and ask them to think about their own place in the larger impact we all have on the earth and each other. At this point, the harder and harder I work, the more in tune I become with my place in the bigger picture. The work becomes more effortless in finally exploring and conveying the conceptual side of what I am tackling so that the whole thing has really become a vehicle not based on a determined will to create but more of relationship I feel with the universe that has made me more of a conduit for expression and communication. I don’t really have to make myself get up and make art anymore, I just find myself doing it without thinking of it as work. Lot’s of things drive me, but it is my ability to understand that this is what I was put here to do that allows that passion and the drive that exists within me naturally to be unleashed.
I want viewers to walk away thinking about how they could live their own lives better. How they could communicate with their loved ones better, be more honest if need be, etc. I want them to walk away feeling like their thinking has been challenged and that they enjoyed a big visual conversation in front to them to engage them on a multitude of levels and open their minds, that they were for a moment a part of a big break in space time, and were part of this imaginary world. I want them to have fun with it. I meditate often now and I have said this many times in my writing, I hope the viewers can experience intensity and passion at my shows, but also find a place of calm, collected meditation and thought, a place to explore their own minds within my exhibitions so as to quiet the chaos of everyday life outside that blinds us so often, and concentrate on what makes them feel good, those they love, and their own consciousness and being. I want them to leave going, “man that guy really loves doing this and he isn’t going to stop. What do I feel that passionately about and how does it fit into my life and the greater world around me”. I want them to embrace the idea that we are living in an Unstoppable Tomorrow, and everything they do counts.
What projects are you looking forward to after this?
The week long tour I am on now with the band Ken South Rock in Japan is going really well! After this I am doing a commissioned painting in Shibuya, Tokyo for DJ I-Am-Jesse (a New York native). Then, it’s back Oakland to take a little breather and plan. September is Stand Tall at Old Crow. I have a group show in San Francisco in December. I have some shows in New York in the spring and then I have something really big lined up for fall of 2013 in the Bay Area that I hope we can reopen our conversation in regards to. Looking for a publisher for a book project. I want to continue to collaborate with bands and performers whenever I can. Travel as much as I can. I will also be working on music and sound pieces. I hope to build a network of gallery support and art support in Japan and beyond so that I can keep bringing artists that I love and work with and respect further into the global art conversation. Many things are on the horizon.
Thank you so much for the interview and support Megan, and also a thank you to Mike and Lyrica and all the writers, artists, and readers of Warholian for their strong support and love. Also a big thank you to Old Crow and Terry for helping make “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” a reality. Ken South Rock for being awesome! I would in parting like to thank above all Alex Morris for his amazing life and contribution to the world around him. We love you and thank you for all that you did and continue to do Alex, Rest in Peace and Rock Out in Peace! See you some day, big guy!
– Installation photos and interview by Megan Wolfe
– Reception photos by John Felix Arnold III
You can read more about John Felix Arnold III on his website at: http://felixthethirdrock.com/