Saturday, August 24

Arnold Mesches brings to light his former FBI files


Artist assigns aesthetic value to surveillance data in Skirball exhibit

When life handed him lemons, Arnold Mesches did one better than
make lemonade ““ he made “contemporary illuminated
manuscripts.” The octogenarian artist, who was the subject of
extensive surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for
27 years, managed to acquire the secret files of his life and
transform them into art.

“Arnold Mesches: FBI Files,” an exhibition featuring
57 collages and paintings, will be on view at the Skirball Cultural
Center from Friday through Mar. 28. The artist is scheduled to give
a lecture tonight at 7:30.

“(The exhibition) exposes what the FBI did to one human
being, one U.S. citizen,” said Mesches. “Here it is, in
black and white, hanging on the walls for people to see.”

From 1945 to 1972, the FBI kept detailed files on Mesches, a
left-wing activist who worked in Hollywood, a city targeted by Sen.
Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Yet, Mesches is
not one to duck and cover from federal agents.

“I had nothing to hide,” said Mesches, who is proud
of his involvement in civil rights marches and anti-war
demonstrations. “I was doing nothing I was afraid
of.”

Surprisingly, Mesches is far from bitter, stating that
there’s nothing much he can do about the past. He does admit
that it’s disheartening to learn that people who were
supposedly friends, students, neighbors and even lovers turned out
to be informants or spies. He had a hunch that the government was
monitoring his every move, but he refused to live his life in
paranoia.

In 1999, the Freedom of Information Act allowed Mesches to gain
access to nearly three decades’ worth of files. He had seen a
friend’s collection prior to his own and immediately was
attracted to the large black slashes decorating the pages. Once his
760 pages of black slashes arrived, his creativity took over.

“(The files) were aesthetically beautiful to me,”
said Mesches. “I researched images from the ’50s and
’60s and arranged (the files and images) together to create
contemporary illuminated manuscripts.”

Medieval manuscripts were covered with painted ornaments and
surrounded by their trademark borders. Mesches’ modern
version applies the same style of patterned borders around
slash-laden pages and images of Hollywood glitz and social
unrest.

According to Mesches, it’s important for today’s
students to learn how people’s civil liberties can be
trampled upon. He noted that discussions on the Red Scare and
McCarthy’s blacklist left visiting student groups
flabbergasted. However, the notion of neighbors reporting on
neighbors isn’t just a thing of the past.

“The Patriot Act gives the government the right to invade
people’s privacy under the guise of national defense,”
said Mesches. “It’s worse than what (the government)
was doing back then. The question now is, “˜Will history
repeat itself?’”

Student tickets are $5. Call (323) 655-8587 or visit
www.skirball.org for more information.

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