They may be copies, but he's an original
The ubiquity of Xerox stretches far beyond our humble hamlet along the Genesee. Each year, the local company's machines crank out billions of pages all around the globe --- who hasn't recently created or been handed a photocopy? For all the uses of that whirring, clacking box next to the water cooler, art seems an unlikely candidate. But for Charlie Arnold, it became an instrument with which to fulfill a unique vision, one highlighted in University of Rochester's new exhibition The Love of the Visual.
Prior to the push-button photocopying we know today, xerography --- the process of making images using electrostatic energy --- was a much more complicated affair. Arnold's prints are created using the "Standard Xerographic Master Making" system introduced in the 1950s. Creating an image with this machine starts with electrostatically charging an aluminum plate and ends with a print seven steps later --- not at all like the busy work we often push off on to the new intern.
Arnold's prints show an incredible range of possibilities for this curious process. Most possess a graininess not unlike that found in photocopied images, but one that is much more refined and recalls the delicate pointillism of high-speed photographic film. Lush blacks work with the texture and color of the paper beneath to create chiaroscuro effects and pronounced depth. Overall, the process lends itself to images both moody and mysterious, two areas in which Arnold's subjects excel.
The bulk of Arnold's works features elemental objects, signaling an interest not only in form but also in the texture and material of the natural world. Wood, stone, and bone appear repeatedly and are delicately but deliberately composed within often misty, grainy voids. Arnold chooses not to title his prints, so the mind is left to both project and collect meaning. Thoughts of temporality, decay, and an earthy spirituality filled me as I looked upon the work.
Arnold's love of drawing is evident, a point he makes in the exhibition text. "I have been drawing all my life," says Arnold, "and my drawings are often in direct relationship to my Xerox images." He illustrates the point with machine-made prints that could easily pass as the work of hand and pencil. Of Arnold's Xerox images that are more man than machine, one print shocks in its similarity to Asian sumi-e painting. A thick line of black fades and fattens as it works its way down the paper; you could almost swear it was the work of diluted ink on a brush and not the creation of Arnold's mastery of vision and equipment.
While the exhibition presents a wide variety of work from a long a fruitful career, there are aspects to the display that detract from a full appreciation. Arnold chooses not to title his prints, but there is no other information posted with the images, and the lack of any immediately discernable organization (by chronology, subject, or process) is troubling. Instead of understanding the development of this work, the viewer is overwhelmed with unlabelled prints from all eras. Overall, the selection is well presented, but some guidance would help visitors get a sense of the span of Arnold's career, his technical explorations, and the shifts in the themes in his prints.
Also odd is the inclusion of more than 20 examples of artwork created by Arnold's students over the years. Beneath each example is a testimonial to Arnold's strength as an instructor, including a piece from renowned photographer Jerry Uelsmann who lauds Arnold as "a wonderful teacher." But speaking with Richard Peek, Director of the Rare Books and Special Collections and a co-curator of the exhibition, it becomes clear that Arnold considers himself a teacher first. Upon hearing that an exhibition was being planned Peek says "the phone started ringing off the hook" with former students who wanted to contribute in some way, so many that Peek had to turn some away. "He has to be the most beloved professor," said Peek.
While you won't find this sort of cheerleading in most galleries, this is not a distant, critical retrospective. Instead, The Love of the Visual is a celebration of not only Arnold's artwork, but of Arnold himself.
The Love of the Visual | Career retrospective of Charlie Arnold | through January 30 | Rush Rhees Library, UR River Campus | Mondays-Thursdays 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Fridays 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturdays noon-5 p.m., Sundays noon-10 p.m. | 275-4477.