Zero Return, 2016
Essay by Kristopher Benedict
In Zero Return, Todd Arsenault has created a group of paintings and monotypes that provoke anxiousness to the same degree as laughter. Somewhere between noticing the variations on sporting equipment and landing on the suspicion-filled eyes that float in space above a frying pan full of eggs in Cooking, we begin to sense the artist’s dedication to the absurd. He has built a cast of fragmented leisure time shoppers, strange neighbors, and faceless pizza-munchers. The space they populate is Arsenault’s vision of the nowhere zone of painting, a place we encounter behind Picasso’s Rose Period actors and acrobats and certainly in the late night studio scrap yard found in the paintings of Philip Guston.
Arsenault’s compelling mix of uneasiness and humor is a trait that belongs to the archetype of “the painter’s painter”. You may have heard the phrase applied to a wide swath of artists, many seeming unrelated, from Goya and Courbet to Picabia, Guston and Agnes Martin to contemporary painters Bill Jensen and Joe Bradley. There is a crucial awareness possessed by the painter’s painter of the farcical nature of the entire operation. These artists posses a reverence towards the history of the medium and towards the picture-making process in the present tense, but also have a dose of detachment and rational doubt that makes it necessary (or at least amusing) to poke the bear. To be a painter’s painter making paintings for painters in an era that reportedly lauds an interdisciplinary approach to producing culture can seem like a dubious distinction, but beyond the cliché there is a power to be found in secret languages. If the artist’s motives at first glance seem obscure, the audience may become energized to break through this insular private language and dive deeper to connect.
By analogy, the archetype of the painter’s painter reminds us of certain bands that don’t quickly find mainstream success but seem to mostly appeal to people playing in other bands. It’s not difficult to read Arsenault’s paintings through the lo-fi aesthetic in popular (independent) music of the late ’80s and ‘90s. There is a do-it-yourself independent spirit and a desire to keep the audience in a state of unease. There is an ironic taunting of the comforts of popular taste, with the use of stock photography, advertising imagery and square boomer culture as a push off point for an ecstatic mind-melt. There is an exaltation of the awkward and uncomfortable moment that reveals a hidden truth. There are broad gestures, multiplicity, humor and unexpected elegance. Like a musician warming up in the studio, half looking for something new and half screwing around, who then hears the producer say, “Done. That was great”, the artists of the genre (and Arsenault in his paintings) collect diverse intentions that are performed with varying degrees of sincerity and self-importance. You sense that bands like Guided By Voices, for example, kept the tape rolling and recorded everything. The revealing and profound moment these artists pursued wasn’t about a perfect take or high production values; it was about narrowing the distance between the band and audience. Arsenault’s paintings do this too – amidst the absurdity there is presentness in his work.
If an overused metaphor to explain the interconnectedness of image production and circulation today has been the network or the web, the work of Zero Return asks for a theory of the burrow. Not Kafka’s paranoid allegory but perhaps the burrow of the wolf spider. Not only are fragments of the paintings and prints we find here surely sourced from a much larger and freer context and nabbed into the interior space of Arsenault’s imaginative world, but we, as the audience, allow ourselves to go to the bunker as well…
The wolf spider from Wikipedia:
“They are robust and agile hunters with excellent eyesight. They live mostly solitary and hunt alone. Some are opportunistic hunters pouncing upon prey as they find it or even chasing it over short distances. Some will wait for passing prey in or near the mouth of a burrow.”
This sounds like we are getting closer. Maybe this is the place of zero return.
In the end, while the painter’s painter remains a bit of mythology and the burrow of the wolf spider opens up on the other side, the paintings in Zero Return, like music with a strong pulse, are about a movement forward. Look closely at Wild to Win You Over and you will see those hairpieces reoccur as a kind of rhythmic theme. In these paintings you never cross the same river twice and that rhythm propels you across passages of sly brushwork and newfound imagery. The paintings move and demand we move too. They offer contemplation with a beat and show us compelling contradictions on the fly. They find a way to suspend complicated hierarchies; lending the impression that they tell a different story each time you pay attention. They are fragmented and impulsive, yet composed and sweetly familiar. They are built from a kind of drawing that is graphic and names a subject, while the use of color provides the odd soundtrack and challenges drawing the right at the precise moment of apprehension. Color provides the mise-en-scene. It gives the painting their turf – a curious nowhere zone with cramped seating.