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Artist Marshall Arisman reflects on childhood, journey from dark to light

“All I think I’m doing is recreating my childhood. When I look back the guns and the mysticism, it’s all rooted in that.”

Artist Marshall Arisman grew up in Upstate New York “surrounded by deer and deer hunters” and spending every Sunday with his medium grandmother and muse “Muddy” in Lily Dale, a haven for spiritualists and mystics. "Learn to stand in the space between angels and demons," Muddy said, and that dichotomy went on to inform a 45-year career in which Arisman walked a fine line between good and evil and light and dark.

As part of “An Artist’s Journey From Dark to Light, 1972-2017,” at the SVA Chelsea Gallery through Sept. 16, visitors will get to see Arisman’s angels and demons oil painting series, editorial illustrations like his Adolf Hitler cover for U.S. News & World Report in 1989, short films and more. 

The multimedia retrospective seems very poignant with Donald Trump’s presidency, but the timing wasn’t intentional, said Arisman, who has been at SVA for 52 years and is chair of the Illustration as Visual Essay graduate program that he started in 1984.

“I did a series on guns in 1972 that is not out-of-date. I did a series on the atomic bomb in 1980 that’s not out-of-date. It’s sad that things are worse — and we’re on the brink of something not very good,” he said during an interview with Metro at his Chelsea studio. 

Despite his penchant for darkness, Trump has not inspired any of Arisman’s recent work.

“It’s too big, it’s too crazy,” he said. “I can’t sum it up in pictures. There’s not enough canvas. I’m overwhelmed by it, and none of us can nail it down. There’s a lead weight on us, it’s heavy, and people are getting exhausted by it.”

Marshall Arisman on ...

... his grandmother’s influence

“She told me to put my hand on a painting — I was about 12 — and said, ‘Do you feel anything?’ I said it was hot, and she said, ‘Exactly. The energy you put into something stays there.’”

 ... his process

“When I started painting, I bought brushes and stretch canvases, and I found that I become so self-conscious of my brushstrokes that nothing was happening naturally. It became more and more style-driven, so I stopped working on stretch canvas, threw away all my brushes, and I only paint with my hands. I liked the idea that my grandmother was right — if my hands are on this, whatever is coming out of me is going in there.

“All I think I’m doing is recreating my childhood. When I look back the guns and the mysticism, it’s all rooted in that.”

... his ego

“Much of this is getting rid of my ego; my ego cannot paint. I keep thinking it can, and it can’t. (laughs) Every time I say. ‘I’m going to do a good painting today,’ I do a terrible painting. Every time I say, ‘You’re no good, you can’t paint,’ I do a good painting. It’s the same lesson I keep learning every day.”

... enlightenment

“After doing all this dark work, I’m more afraid of people seeking enlightenment than I am redneck killers. When you make enlightenment a goal, you become a bad person.

"Do I think I have good intuition? Yes. Where did that come from? I think being allowed to use it. Do I think art is a gift? Yes. Do I think it’s ‘God-given?’ I don’t think so. Picasso said, ‘Everyone’s born an artist. The trick is to stay an artist when you grow up,’ and I think that’s true.”
 

 
 
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