John Felix Arnold III exhibit to hit SFMOMA, plus Japan tour photos

Sjimon Gompers

JFA III in 'Dream World Rakushisha'. (courtesy of the artist, photos by Megan Wolfe)

Oakland based artist John Felix Arnold III returns with his mixed media 'Astroknots' and the world of Unstoppable Tomorrow, this time bringing them to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Artists Gallery Windows beginning June 8 at 147 Minna. The man who has given us installation-performance pieces with Japanther, Unstoppable Death Machines, Ken South Rock, and many more recently returned from a residency at Spes LaB in Tokyo with Koutaro Ooyama, and shared with us his tour photos, notes on influence, meditation, thoughts on new works, and so much more.

First tell us, how did your SFMOMA window exhibit “In Memory Of…” come about?

A person who works for the museum came to my solo exhibition “The Love of All Above” in February of 2012 and told me he had apparently been art stalking me for six months. When he told me he was from SFMOMA I was pretty blown away to say the least. We have since become very good friends, he moved from working in the Museum to the SFMOMA Artists Gallery. I had mentioned to him that I had always wanted to explore the Minna Street Windows and he made some calls and meetings and got the ball rolling. I then met the program director at the SFMOMA Artist Gallery and the rest is history. They have been an absolute pleasure to work with and my work has really soared to a new level with their support.

“Chicken Hawk Dive” by JFA III for SFMOMA

Tell us briefly how you developed these window pieces.

The Program Director for the SFMOMA Artist Gallery came to my studio to see what I was working on and the direction and just gave a general critique and talk. It ended up being the strongest and most informing and inspiring critique I have had since my days at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. The gloves came off and I was so thankful for that, because I am used to and appreciate really raw, critical, honest critiques. She saw some of my older drawings from the original Astroknots series I did in 2006 and was so into them and some older images of my process using solvents and polyurethane and a lot of experimentation. She pointed out some of the weak points of the work I was doing at that moment and pointed to the power, feeling, depth and rawness that lived within the ambiguity and elusiveness of the older more abstract figurative images and layers of the paint and rust and materials. I absolutely connected with every single thing she said and every question she posed and every idea she had, and coincidentally had been moving and thinking in the same direction for some time. This interaction in my own insecure way gave me the validation I had somewhere somehow been searching for to go this direction and that was it.

“Hurtling Through Time” by JFA III for SFMOMA

The day I drilled two new 4'x8' panels up, broke out the house paint, the polyurethane, the spray paint, and most importantly a quart of Minwax wood stain and a rag and got incredibly filthy. The work in the context of “Unstoppable Tomorrow” are recent “Neo-Cave Paintings” by the tribe's documentarian and scribe detailing and remembering the Astroknots which in one way destroyed their society and world, and in another way forced them to open their eyes and see they were being given a new life and an opportunity to discover a deeper side of existence.

Amid your discoveries and travels, how have they affected your artistic reflections?

That could be a book, man. I answered the last question in a rather long-winded way so I will keep this one short for you. I have new eyes in this world and worlds beyond this that reside in a larger consciousness I would have to say. I have seen things and met people and had adventures now that make me so incredibly solidified in knowing or believing that the path I have chosen is the exact right path I am meant to be on. I look back and relive these moments and interactions almost daily, consciously and unconsciously, and all of these visions and thoughts and muscle memories are constantly informing every next idea and stroke. My recent travels were the most profound I have ever experienced and I have a huge love of the interconnectedness of all things on this planet now. Do work, son!

You and the artist Koutaro Ooyama just shared a residency at Spes-LaB in Tokyo. Where do you see the cross-sections and differences in your respective works?

My work is much more based on texture and narrative line work. Mon (Koutaro) works very much in a very graphic flow, he lays down color areas and shapes in layers creating forms and amazing interdimensional psychedelic worlds much like vectors in Illustrator. I build my worlds up through textures and reduction, through making a mess and then refining. He begins with refinement and quickly adds on and on and on creating his immersive atmosphere. I guess I also come from a very spontaneous multi-medium process, he concentrates on a specific medium and while he is spontaneous, he works in much more calculated way than I. Lastly his influences are very different and enlarged and his technique is very different. His work is abstract in sense of feeling and mine is more of a narrative abstraction. Much of my work comes from a figurative basis as well where his always begins with an abstract environment in mind.

Describe for us briefly the 'Dream World Rakushisha'.

Oh man “Dream World Rakushisha” dude. So Rakushisha is a house in Kyoto that has been there for hundreds of years. It was the home of one of Japan's most famous Haiku poets. It is a thatch-roofed house, with a beautiful backyard garden area. You can see the inside of the house as it was hundreds of years ago, and the greens and foliage all over the small plot are unbelievable. I laid down in the back yard and began my meditation and suddenly I experienced this sensation of thousands of small monks; happy laughing and grinning monks, made of leaves and moss creating a moss blanket and covering me in its cool, beautifully soft and natural comfort. I could hear them laughing and giggling and feel these intense rushes of happiness and calm and excitement at having found such a place of creative history and serenity.

How has your interactions with Shingon monks, lead by Kobo Daishi?

The Shingon monks are absolutely amazing. I was invited to experience their 6am chanting ceremony in which they recite prayers, mantras, and sutras, after which the entire temple facility at Henjoko-in, one of the temple inns I stayed at, was explained and shown to us. I was then invited to meditate in what is called a “meditative energy field” with one of the head monks where I experienced one of most intense visions of my life. They really wanted to explain their practice and really instill their principles and offer their story to me. They thoroughly explained the history, the purpose of Shingon, being to send positive energy to all in the world every day of their lives, and explained the root of the three powers, their meditative process, everything…they are pure energy, pure love and pure compassion.

Koyasan Gate, and beyond the Koyasan Gate?

So Koyasan Gate is a mind fuck. It is enormous and it is at the top of a mountain and from it you can see like four other lower mountain peaks. It is giant, with the Ryujin and Fujin temple guardians. The craziest thing is that pilgrimage trails that come from every part of Japan end up at Koyasan and also go to other holy places. A whole web and network of trails and paths come here, and have been traveled upon for over a thousand years. You can actually still hike on these trails across the country, and they are still marked by orange Jinja (shrine) gateways. Koyasan gate is the entrance to Koyasan where many of these trails meet.

Tell us briefly about mossy coffee influencing “Visions”.

The moss, or 'Koke', that is found all over Koya, especially in the Onouin graveyard inspired me intensely. It was all over the temples in Kyoto as well, Rakushisha had beautiful layers of it covering the ground and trees. I based the whole 'Bright on Time' world on this moss and how it melded into manmade structures and I just started drawing it in different amoebic forms and really became obsessed with it. I would draw it at these coffee shops near the house I was staying and started playing with coffee as a medium while drawing.

The gravestone images are wild, are these mini-mausoleums still big in Japan?

Basically yes. They aren't mausoleums because they aren't covered, they are just graves, that is how these monks have been making graves since 800 AD. Literally some of those markers are 1200 years old.

Tell us too about the moss and moss rolls. Did this influence the rich green colors that you and Koutaro have been using in painting the gallery?

We actually decided that we were going to use green as the basis to the whole thing during our first production and brainstorming meeting. We both usually have a very warm palette so we wanted to make a conscious effort to try something that was new for both of us. The rolls just worked out really well. We had been trying to figure out how to make the flat tops of the platforms look like they were covered in moss and these were the answer to our quandary.

Koya looks ancient, where did you find that statue of Bishamonten?

Bishamonten, also called Tamonten, is from Nara. Nara was the first official capital of Japan in 800 AD, the same year that Koyasan was founded by Kukai. The Bishamonten statue is about 10 meters tall, and is to the right of the giant, 15 meters tall sitting Daibutsen (or Buddha) statue at Nara's most famous temple. The structure it is housed in is the largest of all wooden structures on earth.

And lastly, briefly describe your meditative process, influence of the monks and how that informs your current creative streak.

Well, I began meditating due to recovery. I go to meditation meetings, and have become much more involved in it in my life over the years. I have apparently “broken through the wall of ego into the channel” as I have been told by others based on the experiences, visions, and lucid hallucinations I have been fortunate enough to have had. At every temple I meditated at I experienced profound visions and feelings and energies that really blew my mind and really made me feel a larger sense of connectivity and an understanding of my place in the present. Some of these visions are so intense that I have to draw and write and record them almost immediately after they happen. I have a book of recordings and sketches and documentation, and to look at it many people in the west would definitely not believe me or be convinced that I was on drugs. But I have been sober for almost two years and this shit is real. I see wild vast interdimensional landscapes, characters, animals, people, plants moving and shape shifting, I feel surges of warm and cool and love and pain, I experience things that make me understand I am just a conduit for a much larger creative energy that I simply have to be aware of and offer myself for this energy to move through into the world. It's pretty rad, the Monk I meditated with really helped me, without words, find a new level of this. I think I probably do not need to explain how this informs my creative streak, except to say that the universe gives me imagery and power now to create things that I could never ever have imagined previous to these experiences.

“Stormy Weather Revisited” by JFA III for SFMOMA

What and/or who does the “In Memory Of” exhibit memorialize for you?

While it is in the realm of “Unstoppable Tomorrow”, it is about a specific group of people, it of course is a much larger metaphor for the here and now. It memorializes any creature that has ever been through moments of intense, gut wrenching, exhaustive struggle, pain, and change, which has come out of such moments grateful for what those struggles taught them. With new eyes, accepting and understanding that all of the components of life happen how they will happen and we cannot change this, but we can absolutely move forward from these experiences in time and in the end be as grateful for the hardships as we are for the victories we endure.

The reception for John Felix Arnold III's “In Memory Of” will be held June 8 at 111 Minna Gallery in SF.

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