Installation view of Elliott Arkin, The Spanish Gardener, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
Artist Elliott Arkin, 58, has made a living pursuing his own esoteric interests, costs be damned. He’s worked as a sculptor for animated films like Horton Hears a Who, earned his real estate license, collaborated with Vito Acconci on a roving art-education initiative, and served (for a very short time) as the official sculptor for opera superstars Three Tenors, all while pursuing a variety of idiosyncratic projects.
He’s also just spent roughly $120,000 of his own money producing a 10-foot-tall sculpture of Pablo Picasso pushing a lawn mower. Titled The Spanish Gardener (2018), it will be on view tomorrow through July 15th on the corner of Degraw Street and Columbia Street in Brooklyn (a neighborhood dubbed the Columbia Street Waterfront District) as part of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative.
On a recent Friday afternoon, I met up with Arkin to visit his Picasso, which, at the time, was being stored in a large commercial warehouse, surrounded by boxes of speaker equipment. The mixed-media sculpture includes a fiberglass head, a body of urethane and foam, and a mower partially composed of a chunk of repurposed telephone pole. A CNC routing machine assisted with some of the work, but Arkin stresses that he didn’t totally outsource the production to technology.
“There was a lot of surface work—it was important to me that it retains a more classically sculpted quality, with tool marks,” he says. “Things that are carved by the computer have a colder, more manufactured look. I want to see the hand of the maker.” Arkin’s Picasso is indeed expressive; his oversized dome, smooth and bald, resembles some mix of a bobblehead and an Occupy Wall Street protest puppet. He does not look too happy, gazing off into the middle distance at some unseen irritant.
It’s been a journey to get to this point. Arkin, originally from Miami, moved to New York City in 1983. He made a name for himself with realistic figurative sculptures—occasionally comic, occasionally grotesque—made of colored polymer clay. He also moonlighted on the commercial side. Arkin fell in with a crowd of artists surrounding Broadcast Arts, a production company that made commercials, among other things. He contributed animation work for the first season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and rented a studio from the company in Lower Manhattan where he could pursue his own creative work.
“People were always hanging around,” Arkin says of the firm’s freelance stable: artists like Gary Panter, Wayne White, and Laurie Anderson, as well as Mo Willems, who would go on to write the classic cautionary tale for children, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
After success with galleries in the 1980s, Arkin’s career faltered following the art market crash in 1991, yet he kept plugging away. Often, he would tell himself: “It’s time for you to give up art and get a real job, please, you’re in a ridiculous world. Nothing is ever going to work.” Future successes were modest and sporadic, but enough to keep Arkin inspired and afloat. He dabbled in real estate and, for a short time, produced art history-related jewelry (tiny renditions of Gustav Klimt’s Kiss, snippets of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night).
He also began contributing satirical cartoons to Artnet’s online magazine in 2000; one of the first ones depicted the critic Charlie Finch violently eating Jeffrey Deitch. By 2009, those drawings would inspire a new series of sculptures presenting famous artists in the style of common garden gnomes.
Arkin started with a tiny version of Picasso mowing a lawn—the basis for the newer, scaled-up piece about to go on view in Brooklyn. He initially titled it Seedbed, a semi-lewd reference to Acconci’s famous onanistic performance from 1972. Mini-Picasso’s first home was at Belvoir Terrace in Massachusetts, where Arkin was teaching at the time.
This pint-sized Picasso was then included in the 2010 Brucennial, a sprawling, ramshackle show organized by the Bruce High Quality Foundation. That exposure led, unexpectedly, to the offer of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC) in Nice, France.
For the French museum’s roof garden, Arkin conceived an expanded suite of five sculptures. Picasso was joined by van Gogh, Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Louise Bourgeois. He named the entire set “A Peaceable Kingdom,” after an 1834 painting by Edward Hicks. (“Everyone’s working together,” he explains.) Arkin chose his quintet of artists based on their indirect relationship to gardens or gardening: “Bourgeois with spiders, O’Keeffe planting flowers,” he says. “Someone like Rembrandt wouldn’t make sense.” The artist has rough plans for a Frida Kahlo addition to his kingdom, “holding a thatched basket with help from a monkey,” Arkin explains. “It can act as a bird-bath outdoors.”
Older works by Elliott Arkin in his Brooklyn apartment.
The public—and collectors—responded well to the irreverent, impish figures in “A Peaceable Kingdom.” Hotelier Ian Schrager bought one; so did the writer James Frey. Another collector snapped up an edition of the entire group and installed them outdoors in Martha’s Vineyard. It’s important to Arkin that his sculptures, modeled on garden gnomes, can actually be installed in a garden. He’s not a fan of the “religiousness” that many people have when it comes to artists and art objects, the “preciousness and pomposity” that can often prevail. Case in point, he says: a tiny sculpture he made of Ai Weiwei, giving the viewer the middle finger. It’s meant to serve as a ring holder.
Arkin identifies as a populist; his art is meant to be enjoyed, not puzzled over. In that sense, he has something in common with the late Seward Johnson, known for doing things like blowing up the protagonists of Grant Wood’s American Gothic into a 25-foot-tall, three-dimensional sculpture. It’s an accessible sensibility that spills over into yet another side project, Mister ArtSee, which Arkin views as a way to give the art world “a character that’s meant to be a Smokey Bear for art and art education.” He also has future plans to develop an operable, conceptual slot machine as a sculpture. It’s not hard to imagine Arkin’s vision exploding out into other territories; I’d love to see what sort of mini-golf course he might conjure with unlimited funds.
Yet there’s a sly, sinister edge to Arkin’s work that prevents it from always being too family-friendly. In his Brooklyn apartment, there’s a chockablock rack of older works, with editioned pieces next to shockingly adept sculptures made when the artist was a teenager.
There’s also a small-scale riff on Jeff Koons’s sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet monkey Bubbles—in Arkin’s version, a grotesque Ronald Reagan takes the place of M.J.—and a figurative rendering of a woman with comically enormous breasts, meant to be a light parody of John Currin’s nudes. Nearby, a petite sculptural version of Maurizio Cattelan is crouching, pants around ankles, in order to deposit some solid-gold excrement.
A small wine fridge is helping keep certain fragile pieces cool. One is a clay study for a sculpture of Marcel Duchamp playing chess (the final version, Arkin says, will be interactive). The other work, around 3 inches long, is a hyper-detailed self-portrait of the artist lying on a psychologist’s couch, made from a material called Castilene. He spent eight months perfecting its details using needles; you need a magnifying glass to view it properly.
I asked Arkin what his ultimate ambitions are. “Throughout my career I’ve made intimate sculptural works in the art world, and worked in broader fields—film, or designing windows at Tiffany’s,” he says. “The Spanish Gardener is the first time I’m combining the two areas.” One dream he has is to finally produce a massive, 25-by-25-foot version of an older work, Le Cadre: a gold-colored, frame-shaped sculpture that mashes up key moments in art history, from Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Edvard Munch’s Scream. “Other ideas?” he muses, clearly enamored of the chance to finally supersize his ambitions. “Fountains? Piazzas? That would be great!”
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