Artist Kevin Arnold: Up against the wall

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 327 views 

RUDY — The New American Paintings juried exhibition in print threw a monkey wrench in Kevin Arnold’s yearly tradition.

Each fall, the Van Buren-born artist would send in a submission of his work. By Christmas, he’d collect his rejection letter.

He wasn’t sure if he would ever get accepted. For close to 20 years, the publication has been the premier publication of the art world, an automatic career-starter for anyone interested in art as a profession.

It’s hardly the type of publication where one would expect to find work from a guy who lives in a house off a dirt road in Rudy. But Rudy isn’t a place where Arnold expected to find himself after graduating with his master’s degree in fine arts, but it made sense.

“After grad school, some people were going to New York,” said Arnold. “I knew I wasn’t making that jump. It wasn’t practical, getting involved in that rat race and serving tables somewhere. I wanted my degree working for me and needed teaching experience more than anything.”

So he moved to Rudy and started teaching immediately, first at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and now in the art department as an adjunct faculty member for the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

You really have to be looking — or lost — to find Arnold’s home.

But if you do, on the inside, you’ll see a clean, almost barren first floor. The word “almost” applies because on the wall, there is what appears to be a hole with a bad spackle job. There is a blank grocery store pallet propped against an adjacent wall, and across the living room floor, a folding table propped up by the open entryway leading directly into the kitchen.

Instantly, you wonder what the guy’s thinking with his interior design choices. It makes you want to grab a second look. And when you do, you see the joke’s on you. The undercarriage of the folding table staring back at you isn’t really the undercarriage of a folding table staring back at you. Instead it is Arnold’s painting titled “Economy Folding Table S-434.”

The grocery store pallet? Look closer. Between the slats is a shade of white and shadow that blends perfectly with the wall behind it. But what you’re really looking at is another painting.

Arnold’s workroom is upstairs. There are paint buckets and brushes strewn about, an easel and tables containing contents for Arnold’s latest masterwork and a lovable cat named Ollie, who won’t let you pass without giving a gentle stroke to his head.

Among the few anti-art objects is a signed photo of skateboarder Tony Hawk. A skateboard and snowboard and other extreme sports gear line up in the corner. Still, it isn’t long before you discover that these items play a part as well.

“Skateboarding was a huge influence on me,” Arnold says. “It wasn’t a team sport, so you didn’t have to rely on anyone. There was the thrill of riding, and I loved doing it because you were always in this position of challenging yourself. I built a half-pipe in my backyard, and would [practice] for hours and hours.”
But even when Arnold was skating with his friends, and avoiding redneck cries of “Skater Fag!” everywhere he rolled, the love of art was there.
“Art was always a constant thread throughout all that. My ramps would have paintings on them. I was in art class in junior high, and it was around that time that my parents were seeing the results of what I was doing, so they started encouraging me more and got me outside lessons,” Arnold says.

The lessons led to Arnold graduating high school a year earlier than the rest of his class, which in turn led to his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Arkansas in 2006.

After taking two years off, he applied for the graduate programs at Yale University and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence. RISD accepted him, and two years later, he graduated with his master’s. Arnold is the first to admit, however, that he almost didn’t make it.

“The faculty — they kicked your ass,” Arnold says.

Many of the criticisms targeted Arnold’s traditional paintings, expressing concerns that they were not unique.

“They said I was painting for the viewer and not painting for myself. And I didn’t know what the hell that meant. We all paint for the viewer in a way. We want it to be seen. We all want to create something people will see.
“After the summer, I just had to really think about things and what I wanted to do with this. So I came back, and one of my advisors came in and tore in to me hard. She said, ‘You need to get busy, and you need to decide what you’re going to do, because we’re not seeing enough work.’ So I went home, and I don’t know how it happened, but I started painting these boxes.”

Arnold realized his life had been about jumping between Arkansas and Rhode Island, “and there were all these boxes around my apartment, so I just started painting.”

The result was a multi-panel installation.

“They were all separate canvasses with images painted throughout them, but each of the paintings were functional. They were doing something.”

Before long, Arnold was a machine in the studio.

“I had to wear a brace on my wrist for the last six weeks of school because I was just painting and painting and painting. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome started to kick in, and people would ask me why I was wearing it, and I’d have to say, ‘Oh painting.’ I didn’t have a really cool story for them.”

During that time, the faculty started to notice a new artist emerging.

“They were happy to see it, and it was sort of like a redemption for me,” Arnold says. “Even my fellow students, they were knocked for a loop because I was getting away from the traditional painting, and I was taking my skills and turning them into something different.”

At his thesis exhibition, Arnold begab to catch the attention of art critics. During his thesis review, a panel member paid a compliment that still lights up Arnold’s face when he remembers it: “It’s almost like you’re saying F-U to the art world.” Arnold laughs. “You couldn’t give someone a bigger compliment, because we all wanted to say that in some way by the end of the program.”

Another critic questioned why he would want to paint a box top. “It’s great but, you know, there’s no way we’re getting inside that box,” she said.

“[The faculty] said I was denying the viewer pleasure. I was purposely using objects that are generic,” Arnold admits.

But the tactic paid off. Instead of finding a rejection letter last Christmas, he discovered he’d been accepted by New American Paintings.

Shortly following the acquisition, Arnold scored another from art dealer Jack Cohen, who worked with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Cohen was starting his own European art gallery in Lima, the capital city of Peru, and had spotted Arnold’s work in the New American Paintings 100th issue.

Cohen purchased the installations outright for an undisclosed sum and has since informed Arnold that the installation has already sold.

While Arnold did not see Rudy in his future while studying for his master’s in Rhode Island, he admits the location is “working for me.”

“In fact, I had to pass up an interview for a part-time adjunct job at Rhode Island Community College. A year ago, I would have jumped on it, but it’s in my best interests right now to stay here and work on selling as much as I can. It keeps me working, and right now, that’s what I need to be doing the most,” Arnold said.

Arnold's work can be seen at his solo exhibition at Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale through Sept. 28. A reception for the exhibit is slated for 6-8 p.m. Sept. 13.