Sometimes a work of art, developed over years, can become premonitory in unexpected and unsettling ways. When sculptor Cody Arnall began work on the installation Who’s Got a Price on Their Head? in August 2016, he could not have predicted the election of Donald Trump, the escalating tensions with the nascent nuclear power of North Korea, and the rise of aggressive, hateful rhetoric in our nation’s highest office. Just a week after Arnall’s installation opened at LHUCA in Lubbock, in January 2018, people in Hawaii were ducking and covering and saying goodbye to their loved ones, believing that their lives were about to end by ballistic missile. It was a false alarm, but nuclear annihilation suddenly felt like a very real and imminent threat, yet again.
Arnall’s installation incorporates footage of the 1946 Baker Shot nuclear test in the Bikini Atoll, an event of extreme power and carnage. The film, sourced from the WPA archives, is projected onto a six-foot-tall wooden fence at the back of the gallery, providing a background of unimaginable — yet familiar — violence. Arnall’s grandfather, Robert E. Arnall, was assigned as a telegrapher in the Bikini Atoll, and was witness to the event.
“As a kid I remember being afraid of him,” Arnall tells me, sitting at his kitchen table in the house he and his wife, artist Lindsey Maestri, just bought in Lubbock. He soberly related the abuse his father suffered at the hands of his grandfather, and the lineage of paternal aggression passed down from father to son. In his work, Arnall is interested in exploring “shared histories,” finding common ground in personal stories and the culture at large. “Finding that link between family history and that aggressive American mentality,” he says, serves as “a way to communicate to viewers these larger global issues going on right now.”
Fear, aggression, dominance, and denial — the underlying conditions of some American lives — may be hereditary, Arnall suggests. “That’s the stuff that I’m really interested in,” he tells me, “that tension and potential for deception and aggression. And that’s coming into my work right now.”
Lately, Arnall has been collecting debris on walks with his dog, Ralph. “Lubbock is so windy, there’s shit everywhere,” he chuckles. Arnall is 34 years old, with russet hair that he often keeps under a cycling cap. He moved to Lubbock in 2016 to take a position teaching sculpture at Texas Tech University. He is originally from Tulsa.
He shows me a sculpture in progress in his studio at TTU, where he has been vacuum-forming plastic into an ambiguous cloud form, which will incorporate the collected debris and hold audiovisual elements. He sifts through a pile of detritus on a table and hands me a bit of mangled metal. There’s a spoon bent into the shape of a taco and beer cans that have been crushed repeatedly by the trash trucks clamoring through Lubbock’s alleys, flattened like pennies on a train track. Plastic bits, bright and faded, wires and coathangers, and trimmer line in every color.
There are two different kinds of sculptors: those who start with an idea and then gather materials that best express that idea, and those who start from a specific material. Arnall is definitely in the former camp. “I have no material allegiance,” he says emphatically. “The body of work that I had going into graduate school was all based out of steel, and I really loved that material. Then of course you get broken down in grad school, you don’t have a lot of money, and so I started experimenting like crazy.” His studio became “a pile of materials and objects” where he would build these “crazy arrangements,” in a kind of three-dimensional sketching.
“As a sculptor I’m very specific about the materials I collect: what they mean, what they communicate, how they’re arranged,” he says. No one material holds more importance than any other. In addition to more conventional sculpture materials like wood, concrete, and steel, Arnall favors utilitarian things that are generally overlooked for their ordinariness — brooms, buckets, pillows, lamps. His use of zip ties to construct and connect his sculptures became something of a signature over the years. To him the zip tie represents the way he works: immediate, honest, efficient — “like a handyman,” he says. And with a nod to the everyday American reality and “the idea that fakery is all around us,” as he puts it, he utilizes materials known for their artificiality — Formica, Astroturf, fake flowers.
In his MFA thesis exhibition at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, in 2010 — cheekily titled This Doorknob is on the Ceiling — the detailed materials lists of each sculpture doubled as titles. A title like Filing Cabinets, Fish Tank, Fluorescent Fixtures, Fluorescent Bulbs, Lamp, Light bulb, Linoleum Flooring, Electrical Receptacles, Electrical Wiring, Paint, Sawdust, Wood Glue (2010) demystifies the process of making the sculpture. “I want people to know [what’s in the sculpture],” he reflects. “It comes from being an educator.” Naming each material lays bare the quotidian contents of his sculptures and allows the viewer to approach it with their own connections to the individual materials. “I’ll never say ‘mixed media,’” he scoffs.
The combinations of objects in these early sculptures are striking, strange, and sometimes downright funny. Baseball Helmets, Parking Cone, Shoe Laces (2010) takes on a kind of Charlie Brown-like anthropomorphism. And the heady mixture of Americana that is Igloo Cooler, Baseball Helmet, Ketchup Bottles, Corncob Holders, Plastic Bathroom Cups (2010) can be, absurdly, “worn as hat.” The casting of material objects in his sculptures also makes reference to art history, with a wink. They are definitely Duchampian — snow shovels make an appearance — while, perched atop an upended filing cabinet, an empty fish tank also hints at Hirst and even Koons.
Arnall has looked to the YBAs for inspiration (on seeing Sarah Lucas’ work for the first time, he says, “I was like, ‘You can do that?’”), and the influence of earlier British artists like Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg appears in the movement and flow of forms in Arnall’s work. He also names Jessica Stockholder, Terence Koh, Ann Hamilton, and David Altmejd as key figures he’s looked to repeatedly. Of equal, or maybe more, importance, however, are artists closer to home, with whom Arnall has shared a close connection. “I’m more influenced by my friends than famous artists,” he acknowledges, pointing to friends, teachers, and studio mates like Christopher M. Lavery, Mike Calway-Fagen, Kyle Triplett, and David Carpenter.
In 2014 or 2015, Arnall’s work rounded a corner. After a short stint in Houston post-grad school, he was living in Kentucky working as a preparator and technician at Murray State University, while commuting to Nashville to teach at Vanderbilt University. “At that time, doing all that time driving, you think about things more,” he says. Moving on from collections of disparate objects that revel in randomness, in this recent work the objects are imbued with more personal significance.
In The Elevated Section of the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway (2014), a form built out of traffic cones, tar, carpet padding, and zip ties is suspended by thick boat ropes from a wooden framework over a thin strip of blue sand. A recording of seagulls plays from a speaker nearby. The work references a time in Arnall’s life while living in Baton Rouge when he would regularly drive along Interstate 10 the two hours to Lake Charles, Louisiana to visit his ailing great-grandmother. “Travel [had] started to rub itself off in my work, and I had time to think about my great-grandmother and her death,” he says, “and think about connecting these things together: travel, traffic, water, death.” It was “the first time that I’d really bitten off a whole bunch of thinking and tried to make work about it and try to tie all these things together, materially.”
It’s Lonely Out Here (2015) speaks to his experience living in an isolated farmhouse outside of Murray, with no internet, and a flip phone serving as his only communication to the outside world. “Across the road was a pond, with frogs and other wild life,” he explains, “[and there was] a lot of coyotes in the area.” The installation alludes to this landscape with bundles of salvaged wood arranged like thick grasses, around a wooden door laying flat on its side and containing a spotlighted coyote pelt. A recreation of the Sputnik satellite is mounted to the wall behind it, as a reference to the historic launch of global communications. It’s hooked up to an old speaker, playing a recording of his grandmother’s old dog that had “a fucked-up bark.” “[I was] five miles out from a town of 10,000,” he explains. “It was dark. You don’t know what you’re hearing.”
“I changed a lot during this time,” he says. “How I live my life, how I think about things. I use the coyote as a symbol of that change.” The coyote, of course, has a rich significance in American culture and history. For Joseph Beuys, the coyote operated as a stand-in for the United States in his famous performance I like America, and America likes me, performed in 1974 at the height of the Vietnam War. Beuys’ shamanistic performance was billed as an attempt to heal the sick spirit of America.
In Arnall’s work, too, animals appear as signifiers of American trauma and aggression. In Who’s Got a Price on Their Head (2017), a pit bull eviscerates a cat — a violent tableau inspired by a real-life experience. For Arnall, it’s significant that this pit bull, an American Pit Bull Terrier, is a distinctly American breed.
“I don’t know, I’m an American mutt, just like anyone,” he shrugs when I ask about his ancestry and how that might figure into his work. He told me the name Arnall was first recorded in America in 1685. A great-great-grandfather was a Confederate Captain, in Mississippi, in the Civil War, a fact that makes him “uneasy.” On the other hand, he can also trace his ancestry to Cherokee Indians displaced on the Trail of Tears.
Arnall has a vivid memory of staying over at his maternal grandfather’s house, who had come back into his life after a long absence, and opening the door to a room filled with Cherokee objects and artifacts. “I had no idea, no idea,” he shakes his head. “All this stuff has been lost. I don’t know why.”
In his work, Arnall tries to come to terms with the long history of American traditions of erasure and violence, through links to his own family. “I came to it from a personal place,” he says of the installation of the murderous pit bull and exploding A-bomb. “I don’t feel comfortable coming right out and making a political piece; I don’t feel like I have that voice,” Arnall admits. “I’m more interested in the immediate spark of this personal family history, and asking questions — like an anthropologist — about this particular culture that we’re involved in, its history, and how that develops.”
“America has an incredibly violent past,” he continues. “From the beginning of the history of the Americas, it is incredibly violent. A lot of my work has to deal with death and inevitability.” He leans back in his chair, delivering his philosophy with an impassioned directness. “It’s human nature. Everything exists at the demise of something else. Organisms feed off other organisms to live,” he explains. “It’s so ingrained in life, in biology — it’s part of us — but it just gets worse when you have a brain and can strategize. The history of humankind builds off of this incredibly violent thing, that is life on planet Earth.”
This violence comes to an apex with the development of nuclear weaponry, a scourge — with, again, a uniquely American past — that the world is still trying to suppress. “We’re in an interesting time right now,” he says. “It’s not that long ago that [the first detonation of a nuclear bomb] Trinity happened, and by the time we were babies they were still testing nuclear bombs in our backyard.” He brings out his laptop and starts up a video piece by Isao Hashimoto that visualizes the history of nuclear explosions from 1945 to 1998. There have been over 2,000 nuclear bombs exploded on the planet in that time, over half of which were detonated by the United States.
In Arnall’s most recent work, he traveled to the Trinity site in New Mexico, just a few hours’ drive from Lubbock. The site of the first nuclear explosion is open to visitors only two days a year, and it’s a strangely touristy experience. Arnall set up a camera and recorded visitors interacting with the simple stone monument that marks ground zero for the first A-bomb, the point when, in July 1945, scholars argue that the world entered the Anthropocene era. The fourteen-minute video offers a mesmerizing and disturbing document of tourists posing and smiling with the monument and strolling around in the irradiated desert with their dogs and children in tow.
“I know that people interact with monuments in really weird ways,” Arnall says. “It’s like they don’t understand how this thing changed everything and we entered a new era.” It’s an era where the threat of nuclear annihilation, the potential for a catastrophic war, for millions of people to die instantly is ever present, to the point that it’s become entirely normalized. As American as apple pie.
Two months ago, an historic détente was reached — one that none of us could have likely anticipated. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stepped across the border to South Korea, shaking hands with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Redemption, and even healing, as Beuys suggested, may be possible.
“That tension is still there,” Arnall warns when I asked him his thoughts on the developing situation with North Korea. The dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program may be imminent. But it may still blow up in our faces. It’s a legitimate fear to have. The pit bull was unleashed with that first detonation, and we’ll likely spend the rest of human history trying to rein him in.