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Monday 12.22.08

« Snowy Hopes | Main | Yes Virginia there is a MOCA in 2009 »

Corey Arnold's Fish-Work

Matthew and the Sleeper

Sadly, of one of the best contemporary art exhibitions of 2008, Corey Arnold's wry and accurately titled FISH-WORK at Charles A.Hartman Fine Art ended during the blizzard last weekend. If you missed it PORT will try to make up the difference. Sure, we have seen Arnold's work in occasional group shows but this collection of images is particularly strong...and sometimes devastingly fresh.

FISH-WORK installation view

We should also make note because the Portland based Arnold, with representation at LA's Richard Heller Gallery and minor cult status fame from the "most real" of reality television shows is going to go far. Why? Mostly because his work transcends and outflanks our uncertain times through even more tenuous images… images that expose the depths of human perseverance that go beyond mere irony, jokes and even fear. Truth in uncertainty is something all sailors learn.

The Wave

Today, the weather might be extreme (by mild Portland standards) but the tough conditions in these photos give some rare and valuable comparative scale to the world's pressing economic and existential problems. It's all the more poignant as the context comes through the extremely hazardous lens of extreme crab fishing. Sure, times are going get tougher in 2009 but if these fishermen are any indication, the human spirit is up to the challenge, surviving… simply out of habit.

Opilio Morning

The theme is well illustrated by the first two photos in the show, Opilio Morning and Icy Bow. Opilio Morning's roiling seas, steeply pitched ship deck and matter of fact work scene speaks volumes about the human spirit's persistence amid massive uncertainty and forces way beyond human control. In this image, the ship is quite literally "the workplace", which is tossed by a truly hazardous business "environment".

The image also stands as totemic evidence of human activity, and as stoic photographic proof of survival through routine. It sure beats those cheesy office posters with words like "adversity" and "teamwork" next to some natural scene. Instead, as hard won stories from the edge, Corey Arnold's photographs are proof that specific experience beats blanket sloganeering every time.

Icy Bow

Icy Bow is somewhat more in the stoic and romantic mode, with its crusted ship's bow acting like some sort of existential arrow into the unknown. It is a quieter more sublime image in the mode of Caspar David Friedrich or something more abstract like Richard Diebenkorn.

Like all shows at Charles Hartman, this show is beautifully hung and each image supports and reinforces the other but it's the photographer's intense "toughness" and stark sense of grim humor that elevates each image in what could be seen as an almost ecclesiastical state of transcendence. That's right, much of this work more legitimately resembles the saints, martyrs and vanities' of old master painting than the highly manicured staging's of Gregory Crewdson… whose work looks oh so 2003 compared the truly stoic oceanic sieges depicted here.


Instead, images like Matthew and the Sleeper, Opilio Bed and Loneliness clearly define the grim humor of this show. Simultaneously goofy, work weary and stoic the gallows humor here draws stark but incredibly thin lines between the living and the dead. This reminds the viewer that Arnold isn't merely just some tag along photographer… crab fishing has been an integral part of his life for a long time and it is heartening to see contemporary art produced with such traction from intense real world experience.

In other words, Arnold may have gone to grad school but it is hardly the most defining experience of his life or art practice. Honestly, I could see Richard Serra (arch duke of the old garde tough artists of yore) appreciating this work.

Gulf Crossing

Other works like The Wave and Gulf Crossing, have an almost El Greco sense of scary teal verticality, reminding me of Thor Heyerdahl's incredible journey in Kon Tiki, or Melville's Moby Dick… the book that has profoundly shaped my (and most other literate Americans consciousness's). The Wave and Gulf Crossing both left me wondering if the sea is the new West… or maybe it was always the only true west. (apologies to Sam Shepherd)

Bering Sea Birthday

Or maybe happiness comes from choosing one's struggle... such as my favorite image in the show, Bering Sea Birthday. In it a lone figure upon a canted deck and tossing seas swings a rod at the piñata… and it all seems utterly more gratifying than obsessively trying to harpoon a white whale.

This is work that is both of and transcendent of its times and this Portland-based photographer may be the best shooter I've come across since Justine Kurland. Arnold is a legitimately daring art world offering, and how often do we see that?

Posted by Jeff Jahn on December 22, 2008 at 12:06 | Comments (2)


Good to see this show get some coverage. I saw this work at Heller and was excited to learn he lives in Portland. Arnold has a great eye for dramatic composition and subtle humor.

Posted by: inexile [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 23, 2008 04:18 PM

Aside from being in the line of duty, this exhibition was really lacking in terms of quality images. There seemed to be something that fell short in every image in this exhibition, except for the exceptional Gulf Crossing which was both large format and crisp. Overall, one cannot be sure how long Arnold has been using a camera, perhaps digital here. I saw the show the first week it opened with high expectations, having heard the high praise, but what I saw was so different from the wonderful supplemental materials which are far greater than the actual work. Posing with dead fish is what seamen do, it seemed a bit silly in several of the images here, awkward, and not in an arty sort of way, like his fellow Portlander Holly Andres does so well (though her work is lit with a sense of perfection, and printed with storybook unreal color and high definition). If Arnold's work is documentary, then be that, but it seems to wiggle in an incredibly awkward place that only tends to vacilate thinly. The environments are exciting, but the end result is just rather eh, not at all like described here. The book is lovely, as is the show card, but don't climb a snowy peak for this one. And if you are interested in similar terrain try out a real Seaman's work - Camille Seaman to be specific (ref. http://www.camilleseaman.com).

Posted by: Sasha [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 26, 2008 02:23 PM

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