Announcing that “KEITH ARNATT IS AN ARTIST” across the width of the gallery in bold letters made of black tape, Arnatt simultaneously introduces insistent bravado and a hesitant plea. Without spoken inflection, this declaration begins to question both material facts and imputed ideas within the white cube. Titled Art and Egocentricity: A Perlocutionary Act? (1971), Arnatt’s sentence interrogates art as an act of suggestion rather than conclusion. Another piece, titled Jo’s Notes (1991-94), speaks both of domestic frustration and intimacy, demanding actions such as “Let the dogs out before you go to bed.” These scrawled instructions have a fragile quality and yet suggest the timeless urgency of communication.
Arnatt’s work consistently explores the instability of meaning within the image or object. Apparent certainties cede ground to weakness. In Self-Canceling System (1967) the reliability of mathematical progressions carry contradiction. A series of salt mounds double in size at regular distances until the volume of one mound necessarily collides with its neighbor. This logic of minimalist progression departs from a Donald Judd-like coherence and collapses under the weight of its inherent contradiction. Oddly, the instructive text and diagram is inexplicably absent here, leaving the floor piece rather orphaned from its conceptual parameters.
Perhaps the most engaging works are the photographic series like “Gardeners” and “Taking The Dog For A Walk” made in the ’70s. They examine encounters between viewer, subject, time, place and activity. Acting as typologies, Arnatt uses these black-and-white prints to illustrate generic hobbies without losing specific details. Functioning both as archetypes and individuals, unnamed gardeners proudly display their plants and kitsch ornaments. A woman extends her kitchen into the garden by wearing a cooking apron while holding a pair of shears. Another man proudly pushes his lawnmower to conquer a lawn.
This retrospective of Arnatt’s modest formality and scope leads the viewer into art’s wider dialogue with the world whether through the investigation of logic and language or simply the eccentricities we indulge at home.
by Joshua White