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Chester Arnold subject of career-spanning exhibit

Sonoma artist Chester Arnold smiles when considering that his work is being shown this spring in a museum alongside exhibits honoring Andy Warhol and Ansel Adams.

“We’re a great combination,” he says of his current show running simultaneously with works by those legendary artists at the Fresno Art Museum.

But taking a more seriously tone, Arnold adds, “To have a show at any museum is a great thing, and the opportunity to do that with artists you admire and respect is an added bonus.”

Arnold’s latest exhibit isn’t just any show. On display through June 26 at the Fresno Art Museum, “Reports to the Contrary, A Persistent Vision, Paintings 1971 - 2021,” is the first career-spanning gallery retrospective of his work, though he’s had more than 40 solo exhibitions and participated in more than 50 group shows throughout the West Coast in his 50-year career.

While Sonoma fans are encouraged to check out the Fresno show during its run, those who can’t make the trek can see the retrospective through “Chester Arnold: Reports to the Contrary,” an 82-page catalog of the exhibition with personally selected images and commentary from Arnold, tracing his work and influences decade by decade.

The catalog and exhibit highlight 20 large works and about 20 small paintings, says exhibit curator Michele Ellis Pracy. Some pieces have rarely or never been exhibited before. The catalog will be available beginning in May at the museum’s online store at fresnoartmuseum.org, and at Readers’ Books in Sonoma.

Arnold, 70, also will host a presentation and sign copies of the catalog at 6 p.m. May 18 at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, 551 Broadway, Sonoma.

50 years of art

“I feel like I’m still having as much fun today as when I started,” Arnold says. “When I go out to the studio, I never know what’s going to happen, but something always happens.”

Yet, despite his long career and stature in Bay Area art circles, it’s almost surprising that the Fresno show is only his first career-spanning exhibition. Arnold’s work has long been admired by some of the most respected names in Bay Area art criticism.

“The value of his work, beyond its pleasures and diversions, is to prove that the images of personal and social calamity the times stimulate in us are not beyond redemption,” the late San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker wrote of Arnold’s work in 1994. “Arnold’s skill as a painter is a visible record and a warning of the discipline it takes to work with such images inwardly.” (Arnold and Baker became good friends over the years; the “Reports to the Contrary” catalog is dedicated to Baker, who died in 2021.)

In a review of a 1987 exhibit at the William Sawyer Gallery in San Francisco, Rebecca Solnit wrote: “Chester Arnold has made a wonderful series of paintings in a vein that might be called surrealistic if it were not down-to-earth in a way that contemporary surrealism seldom is.”

Accolades from renowned arts writers aside, Arnold says the time frame represented in “Reports to the Contrary” dates back to works from his first public show reviewed in the local press.

“It was in March of 1972. (Art critic) Ada Garfinkel reviewed in the Marin Independent Journal my show at the Mill Valley Public Library gallery,” Arnold says. “I thought fame and fortune were surely on the way.”

The seeds of the Santa Monica native’s passion were sown as a child growing up in 1950s Munich, Germany, where his father worked as a linguist and field agent for a U.S. intelligence unit. It was this postwar atmosphere “that profoundly affected his ideas about humankind and the world-forging sense of social responsibility that has seldom escaped expression in his paintings,” according to the Fresno Art Museum’s description of the exhibit. “It was exposure to the great museums of Munich and Vienna that shaped (his) belief in the power of painting to communicate beyond words.”

“It’s a serious attitude in looking at humankind,” Arnold says about embarking on a life in art. “I thought I could make the world a better place through painting.”

Arnold studied art at the College of Marin in the early 1970s and went on to earn an master’s degree in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1988. In addition to his studio work, he has taught art classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco State University and Sonoma State University and, perhaps most notably, spent 20 years as a senior fine arts faculty member at the College of Marin. He retired from the college in 2018.

He fully expected to miss teaching, but has found staying in contact with former students and other passionate artists has filled the gaps of the “intellectual stimulation” that used to come through preparing discussions and talking about people’s work in class.

Invitation to engage

Arnold’s work is vivid, dense and detailed. Along the way, his perceived style has picked up such labels as realism, surreal and the oft-used “narrative.”

“In the mid-'80s ‘narrative’ was attached to a lot of art,” he says. “And it was attached to me.”

At one point, he started referring to his work as “psychorealism,” Arnold says.

But a colleague said, “artists can’t name their own genres of painting,” so he was left with other people’s labels. And Arnold is OK with that.

“If the emotional energy is there (for any description of his style), I just went along with it,” he says. “As long as people respond with interest.”

And does Arnold still believe he can make the world a better place through painting?

“I do,” he says.

“What kind of confirmed that and informed me is the way teaching can get people to tell the stories they we’re going to tell.”

Many of his students over the years have been those who left other careers to discover what it is they’ve always wanted to do.

“Which was to paint,” Arnold says. “A lot of these former students are now showing in galleries, and making more than I make on my work.”

He compares art to “spreading the gospel.”

“Music, literature or poetry — it allows us to communicate with our fellow man about what it is in the world that concerns us,” Arnold says.

“The world is an extremely interesting place. As citizens living on the planet, art is an invitation to engage with it to whatever degree we can.”

More of Chester Arnold’s work can be seen at chesterarnold.com.

Email Jason Walsh at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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