Through his paintings Chester Arnold brings us face to face with the harsh realities of “life in the country”; meaning we want the beauty of the forests, but we also want lumber for building, wood for burning. To help us ponder this dilemma Arnold also brings into his work an equal measure of hope and humor.
Having been tutored in Germany as a youth, Arnold has a keen awareness of traditional nineteenth-century European landscape painting. This influence can be noticed in the composition and development of the natural elements in his work, such as trees, sky, and seasonal conditions. Arnold was particularly influenced by the German romanticist, Caspar David Friedrich, whose pastoral landscape paintings are tributes to the spiritual mystery of nature’s vastness, where humans come and go, leaving their marks, but eventually nature prevails. Upon this backdrop Arnold overlays contemporary social-political issues such as environmental degradation, overconsumption and the mishandling of consumer waste. While many of Arnold’s paintings are based on natural landscapes and the impact of civilization upon it, the work in this particular exhibition focuses more specifically on trees and forests, bringing to our attention the very current issues of logging and land use, but we also see elements of natural decay, and the power of nature to keep things in balance.
In the 2009 painting, Turning, we see a copse of leafless trees in the foreground, marking the margin between nature and civilization. Brooding dark skies hover over an urban skyline in the background, forewarning the coming storm. A lovely, moody scene—if it weren’t for all the bits of litter and refuse strewn through the trees, clinging to bare branches. To the right of the forest is a cluster of city dwellings, set precariously askew, their windows appear as eyes staring with helpless concern, is their tidy domain being encroached upon? In the left corner a murmuration of starlings’ swirls in the sky, hinting at the presence of wildness, perhaps nature will prevail and take back its territory.
The allegory of man and nature appears in various ways throughout the work. In The Crooked Timber, 2010, the subject is a fallen tree; the twisted form of the once proud oak reclines on its side, the timber is crooked, not suitable as building material, but will make a good home for mice and beetles. The painting is accompanied by small sketches using washes of oak gall ink, lending a sense of lasting reverence to the great fallen tree.
Cemeteries offer compelling parallels to life, death, and rebirth in nature. Arnold’s painting Perpetual Care, shows tombstones of a neglected cemetery being consumed by nature for perpetuity of a different type. The scene takes place at the world’s edge, beyond is the great unknown, a small lone human tries to tend the memories, the crooked timber appears again, offering a perch to the raven who watches over knowing how the plot will unfold. In a similar manner the 1826 painting, Graveyard Under Snow, by Caspar David Friedrich, offers a similar message—humans are born, they die, nature takes over, all as it should be.
In a masterfully executed painting, Left Behind, 2010, we see a beautiful winter landscape, the edge of a forest along a snow-banked stream. Then, at closer look we notice the junk in the stream, detritus from human accumulation, which is slowly merging back into nature. In the distance, a man sits with his back to us at a campfire, deep in his own thoughts, which seem to drift away with the wafting smoke. Deftly painted brushstrokes intricately describe details of the twigs, pebbles, snow drifts, and smoke. The qualities of this wintery scene remind me of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, such as Winter Landscape Near a Village, by Hendrick Avercamp, where the wintery village scene is populated with tiny figures going about their usual day-to-day routines, all in marvelous detail.
While living in Sonoma County, and teaching at College of Marin, Chester Arnold’s work has been shown and collected internationally and throughout the country. The paintings here present both a meditation and commentary on matters related to our precious native forests and woodlands.
Also at the museum is Hugh Livingston, Sonoma Oaks: Points of View. Livingston is a composer and multi-media artist, and for this exhibition he presents a series of audio and video installations on the patterns and sounds of California oak habitats. Livingston documents the environment with time-lapse and aerial photography, and he examines the sounds of raindrops and wind on oak leaves, then displays a “periodic table” of the sounds of Sonoma. This project is a continuation of his deconstruction of the Sonoma landscape, which began during his recent term in the Russian Riverkeeper Artist-in-Residence program. At that time Livingston recreated the essence of the Russian River as he had experienced it, and presented a multi-media color analysis of the Russian River. By dissecting and emphasizing selected elements, Livingston brings to our sensory awareness details we may otherwise have overlooked. Hugh Livingston’s work can also be found in the Museums outdoor sculpture garden.
A Curator’s tour of the exhibition is scheduled for Friday, July 6, 7 p.m. You can register on their website, space is limited.
The exhibitions continue through September 9, 2012. The Sonoma County Museum is located on Seventh Street in Santa Rosa. For more information check their website, www.sonomacountymuseum.org.
Images from www.sonomacountymuseum.org.