ARNOLD MESCHES; A Painting History 1940-2003 A Visual 'History' That Can Provoke as Well as Please

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Byline: TANYA PEREZ-BRENNAN, The Times-Union

Once in a while, an artist comes along who succeeds at producing aesthetically pleasing art that carries a strong message as well.

Arnold Mesches is one of these. The 80-year-old, who recently relocated from New York to Gainesville, is having a retrospective exhibit of his work from the past 63 years at the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art. The show opens tonight and runs through Sunday, May 16.

Mesches, who began as a self-taught artist, gained exposure only later in life, through more than 100 one-man shows in cities such as New York and Los Angeles. For years, he taught painting at New York University; he's now a guest professor at the University of Florida.

Many of the themes in his work document historical events -- the Holocaust, the horrors of war and social struggle -- issues he was concerned with at an early age as a student activist in Los Angeles.

"I don't think I started out by saying I'm going to be a social painter. It was natural," he said. "I think the word that is a clue is I had to. You have to do it. It's almost like you have no choice."

And so Mesches fused childhood memories with historical events, stringing together symbolism and an expressionistic use of color.

George Kinghorn, chief curator at JMOMA, said he wanted an exhibit that would reflect the various time periods in Mesches' life. Much of his early work was done with bold, expressionistic brush strokes, with a decidedly figurative and narrative style, Kinghorn said. Mesches' later work uses color in a more expressive manner.

"His works are about social and political issues," Kinghorn said. "But from a painterly standpoint, it's about the movement of paint, about line, shape and paint surfaces. There's a lot of surface activity. Some are narrative and overt, and some are more implied."

Indeed, the 82 works that make up this exhibit do reveal the evolution of Mesches' style and subject matter. Kinghorn said he intentionally included earlier pieces, like preparatory drawings.

"I set up the show so the viewer will make a connection between the works and how one work inspires another," he said.

Mesches was deeply influenced by the Mexican muralist painters, in particular Jose Clemente Orozco, along with masters like Goya and Picasso. And though Mesches continued to create art with political messages, he was still firmly committed to the language of art, to the importance of the visual aesthetic.

"Art is form and content, and art is like the world," Mesches said. "It's not good enough to make a statement; it has to have integrity and complexity. …