Art Beat: Graphic Novel Comes to Life in John Felix Arnold III's "Unstoppable Tomorrow"

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Kate Conger
John Felix Arnold III in his studio.

John Felix Arnold III is a painter -- sort of. He's also an illustrator, a sculptor, a scavenger, and an installation artist. Mostly, he's just a guy with a story to tell. The story is called "Unstoppable Tomorrow," and it's a post-apocalyptic tale where humans are no longer at the top of the food chain, replaced by man-machine hybrids known as Astroknots. Originally created as implements of war, the Astroknots consume anything they touch -- buildings, people, weapons -- and incorporate these items into themselves. When humans lost control of the Astroknots, they ravaged the earth and left behind a motley bunch of nomadic survivors.

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"Unstoppable Tomorrow" is told through a series of installations that function as chapters of a graphic novel come to life. Arnold's paintings are a whirlwind of Astroknots, wandering figures, and traditional comic-style onomatopoeia. These paintings form a backdrop for sculptural, storytelling pieces. His current show at Book & Job Gallery features a re-constructed motorcycle and an altar mourning one of the Astroknots' victims. An upcoming exhibition will include a car that visitors can sit in while they listen to a dialogue between two of Arnold's characters. The installments of his living graphic novel are scheduled throughout 2013, including one that will be on display in the SFMOMA windows overlooking Minna Street.

As part of Art Beat, an ongoing interview series with local artists, SF Weekly spoke with Arnold about how he started making art, the ideas and process behind "Unstoppable Tomorrow," and the inevitable magnetism of San Francisco.

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John Felix Arnold III
The current installment of "Unstoppable Tomorrow" at Book & Job Gallery.

How would you define the artwork you make? Is it painting, or is it a graphic novel, or what?

It's mixed media work. I wouldn't use a medium to define my art because the art I make exists in so many different mediums. On a certain level, it is like a giant narrative graphic novel world that I'm creating constantly. Within that framework, I want to explore as many different types of mediums and techniques as I possibly can. All these different mediums let me explore this world, and the artwork also serves as a mechanism for me to deal with hardcore environmental, social, and personal issues. I have questions about why things are the way they are and what we can do to be part of the solution. Art gives me a way to not be afraid of those sorts of questions. It gives me a way to explore my place in the world while having fun.

Can you explain what "Unstoppable Tomorrow" is?

Each exhibition that I do is like going to the comic shop or the book store and getting the next installment of a graphic novel. I used to go and buy Blade of the Immortal, which is a really awesome samurai manga, and wonder what would happen in the next installment and be so excited to read it and look at the pictures. In the same sense, I deconstruct the idea of a graphic novel and put it into an actual, three-dimensional space. I use paintings and installation and sound to create a setting from that world, and you can go and actually interact with it. "Unstoppable Tomorrow" is the framework that whole world happens in.

On a very literal level, it's this future world where we're the batteries in this system. Scientists have been given all this funding to make new weapons. They figure out how to take the idea of an amoeba -- an emotion-less organism that just eats and grows -- and use it to build the Astroknots. They unleash them on the battlefield and then lose control over them. They move in weather patterns, like a tornado or a hurricane, and they roll over the landscape, consuming everything, and getting bigger and bigger. They are our creations, but they become our predators. So then humanity lives in fear that these things are just going to come rolling over the landscape again.

Can you catch us up on the story so far?

The first few installments in "Unstoppable Tomorrow" have been about a specific tribe of people that did live in a metropolitan area, like Queens or Brooklyn. They are neo-cave painters, drawing the Astroknots on the newly erected shanties. They start figuring out how to deal with their surroundings, how to find water and food. The installment at Old Crow recently, called "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" was them finally coming to a turning point (which is a comment on society now) where they have to make a very conscious shift. They see their future unraveling. A certain portion of them want to stay and avenge the dead, and there's a larger group that has finally awoken to the fact that the only consistent thing in life is change. In order to adapt and live in the post-apocalyptic world, they have to change.

Each installment so far has been about that group of people, their stories, their conversations, and their decision to move on. The one at Book & Job now is called "In Memory of Shy," and it's about one of the characters who gave her life to lead an Astroknot away from everyone. She learned how to change its course, but was killed in the process. The whole show is about the shrine they erected for her.

How did you start making art?

I think art started having me make it. I don't think it was something I knowingly started doing. I was born to do this shit, you know? I can never not make art. It's beyond obsession; it's part of me. It's something that I have to do. My mom tells me this story about when I was four years old, I colored myself purple from head to toe with a permanent marker. My babysitter was watching a movie and I was upstairs coloring my eyelids, my armpits, everywhere. My mom says she came home and almost fainted. She didn't know what to do. She says I looked up and said, "Look, Mom, I'm a grape!" So there's always been a part of it that's a performance aspect too.

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Kate Conger
Detail of a painting in the artist's studio.

Why did you move to San Francisco from New York? What keeps you here?

That's pretty simple at face value. It boils down to a logical string of events that happened. I came out here in the summer of 2005 because my best friend was living in Berkeley and I didn't have a job, I was freelancing. I ran into him at a wedding and the next thing I know, I was sitting on a log in the woods, drinking a bottle of single malt scotch, and he was like, "You need to come to California!" 2004 was a really rough year for me in New York. I came out here and had a blast, but it was also my last summer as an adult man-child. Every day, I would get up, do some cell phone graphics and then I would start drinking.

I had applied to San Francisco Art Institute, and I got an acceptance letter from them, and a scholarship. So I moved permanently in 2006 and went to grad school for a year. I dropped out and was ready to move back, but I got a job at Upper Playground. I thought, well, I need a job and I need to save some money before I go back to New York, so I stuck around and met this girl and got some shows. I didn't want to bail on the art shows, or my job, or my girlfriend.

Things got really bad and I started drinking insane amounts. Next thing I know, I got fired from Upper Playground, but I had just gotten this huge mural gig. Basically, every time I tried to move back to New York, something would present itself that was really enticing, or I would need it to make money. I finished the mural, got $3,000, went on a crazy binge, and ended up going to rehab. I got out of rehab and they said I couldn't move anywhere for a year. And then I got a job and a great apartment above a gun store in San Francisco. Shows started to work out. I fought hard, I fought it for years. I was miserable here at first. It's very different from the East Coast. Now I'm happy as a clam, man. The universe has proven to me that I'm supposed to be here right now. I'm happier now than I've ever been in my life. I can say that with full gusto and absolute truth.

There's a lot of drinking and drugs in the gallery scene here. What's it like being sober in that community?

It's been really hard for me to get sober. It would be jinxing myself to ever call myself a "sober artist." Let's put it this way, when I was 25, I went to openings to look at art, but mainly to drink the free beer and meet people and wile the fuck out. I used to do a ton of drugs and drink and party all the time. I was a very escapist person. Art's been really interesting for me because it's something that allows me to escape my immediate reality, but then gives me a bridge to explore myself more deeply. It's like using this escapist architecture to discover what's inside me.

We live in a crazy world, and it's stressful. People want to go get loose. Art has always and will always have a huge foot in the culture of escapism, and the idea of escapism to find yourself. When I was younger, I reveled in it and it was important to me. I wouldn't be who I am today if not for that. It's an integral part of the art world. It's the idea of everyone coming together to celebrate creativity and lose their inhibitions. I don't take part in it anymore, but there's something I like about walking down the street and seeing an art show where there's a huge group of people getting loose. There's people looking at the work, but after a while, they're just kind of socializing. There's something that touches me about that. People came out of their houses to celebrate artwork -- and celebrate free beer.

Do you ever struggle to find inspiration?

I have too many fucking ideas. I have trouble keeping up with it.

What inspires you?

Everything. Literally. If you were on Market Street and you took a camera and opened the shutter and could have everything start to blur together, that's what I see. That inspires the Astroknots. Watching people's habits and interactions inspires the hell out of me. Public transportation inspires me. My big thing lately has been fizzy water. I've been going up to the hot springs. I go to a monastery in Berkeley every Sunday and meditate for an hour. I see visions that are unparalleled by any hallucinogenic drug I ever took. Everything around me is inspiring. My friends. Chris Burch inspires the hell out of me, he can draw so fucking well. The art scene and people making things inspires me. Chloe Crossman inspires me. Mary Carbone is a strong and compassionate leader and an inspiration. I went on tour in Japan and it was very inspiring. Change is inspiring to me. The whole framework of my world is about taking things that could be negative and making them positive. When I go to collect materials, I look for pieces of wood that are torn up and weather-beaten and have stories in them. I like Oakland a lot because it reminds me of cities where I grew up, like Durham and Brooklyn. It's been through hell and back, but it's still here.

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