Natalie Arnoldi is a scientist first, then a painter. Or maybe it's the other way around.
"I don't like to prioritize one over the other, actually," Arnoldi, who lives in Venice, California, tells SFR. "I've mostly been a full-time artist for the past four years, but I've also been working as a lab assistant, and now I'm applying for a PhD in marine biology." In This Happened Here, on view at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art for just three weeks, Arnoldi trades in themes of earlier paintings—gas stations, fireworks and airplanes, invariably surrounded by dense, foggy mist—for interiors of Holocaust concentration camps; it's a striking departure, visually and emotionally.
There are only four paintings in the show, but most are 8-by-8-feet or bigger, engulfing the viewer. When asked about the odd man out, a 2012 work of misty railroad tracks, Arnoldi says she feels like it provides an entry point to the other three paintings, which were inspired by recent visits to Nazi camps, but are actually based on historical photographs. In one, the word BRAUSEBAD (German for shower) appears over an opened door, through which an inner chamber is murkily visible, beckoning us into its darkening grey depths. It is deeply unpleasant, which is at least partially the point—it would be disturbing if we weren't disturbed by gas chambers. Nevertheless, it's so bluntly, intrinsically horrific, that for some it may be acutely distressing. In another image, which measures over 16 feet across, a dimly lit, hazy tableau of Auschwitz showers is similarly jarring. [Author's note: Jackson refrained from releasing the three concentration camp images for publication prior to the opening. At the time of publication, SFR has only the image of the railroad tracks, reproduced here.]
It may come as a surprise, given the work, that neither the artist nor the gallery owner is Jewish. Arnoldi's dad Charles, or Chuck, is a celebrated California-based abstract painter who has shown in major museums and galleries both stateside and abroad, and has been represented by Charlotte Jackson for many years. "I know I've been lucky— hugely lucky," Arnoldi says of her art-star father, "but I believe my work speaks for itself."
Now 27, she was just 19 at the time of her first exhibition, at New York's Nyehaus. "I went to college to study science," says Arnoldi, who has degrees in earth systems and marine biology from Stanford. "Being a painter wasn't on my agenda." That changed when a curator visited her dad's studio. The curator was there for Chuck, but happened upon a painting of Natalie's and invited her to participate in the Nyehaus event. "After that first show it snowballed," Arnoldi recalls; she now has more than 25 exhibitions under her belt.
Jackson has no plans to sell the works in This Happened Here. "The show is about telling a story, not about selling paintings," she explains. And whether her gallery is up your alley or not, Jackson runs one of the most tightly cohesive, reliably abstract art programs in the city. At press time, nary an artist on the gallery's website makes anything that could be called figurative; in fact, most take minimalism to its very outer limits, painting in a single color. Arnoldi's work categorically doesn't fit in, so why exhibit it?
"I would never have shown Natalie if it wasn't for Chuck," Jackson acknowledges, who, like that Nyehaus show curator, stumbled across Natalie's paintings because she saw them hanging in her dad's studio. "They haunted me," she tells SFR. "Natalie told me she felt like she needed to make them, and I decided someone needed to show them."
In the show's press release, readers are reminded that without witnesses, history can become "obscured;" the unshakable truth of this is important, now as ever. Arnoldi's previous paintings are mysteriously commanding, with ghosty fog partially obscuring an intriguing range of subjects, from exploding fireworks to shark fins. Where Arnoldi's technique of creating gauzy mist works beautifully, even strangely movingly, in a painting of an abandoned gas station, that same mist is of a shockingly, horrifyingly different nature in an 8-foot-tall oil painting of an abandoned gas chamber. "I've had positive feedback in the sense that people have seen them and reacted to them in a very emotional way," Arnoldi says of her new body.
The thing is, of course we have an emotional response to finding out we're looking at scenes from Dachau; we're compelled to respond emotionally—and that feels somewhat ruthless. Arnoldi, though, is prepared for a range of reactions. "This is a spiritual, political and emotional journey for me," she muses. "I have no idea how it's going to go over."
Natalie Arnoldi: This Happened Here
5-7 pm Friday March 9. Free. Through April 2.
Gallery Talk with Arnoldi and Bruce Guenther:
3 pm Saturday March 10. Free.
Charlotte Jackson Fine Art,
554 S Guadalupe St.,