This post contains nudity.
Many of Steven Arnold’s life experiences and influences—including an encouraging high school teacher, Jungian archetypes, Salvador Dali, and LSD—found their way into the surreal photographs he created before he died in 1994.
“He thought of [the photographs] as objects for meditation, something with which you sit and looked at,” said Vishnu Dass, the executive director of the Steven Arnold Museum and Archive in Maui, Hawaii. Dass never met Arnold, but he has been running the archive for the past five years and is currently working on a documentary about Arnold’s life.
Arnold’s first major influence was his high school art teacher Violet Chew, who encouraged him to follow an ancient Chinese method of self-reflection that allows the artist to visualize what is causing them to hold tension and to work from that place in order to get out what needs to be heard. Arnold, who also worked with film, painting, illustration, and costume design, took that to heart and later in life spent several months on the island of Formentera off the coast of Spain where he experimented with LSD, taking it daily and living in a communal environment.
“This new drug was so euphoric and visionary, so positive and mind expanding. … I ascended to another dimension, one so beautiful and spiritual that I was never the same,” Arnold was quoted as saying in a press release for his upcoming show, “Epiphanies,” which will be on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York City from Oct. 29 to Dec. 19.
In the early 1970s, Salvador Dali saw Arnold’s film Luminous Procuress, and, in 1974, Arnold traveled to Spain to study with the surrealist artist and to help him build the Dali Theatre and Museum.
In the 1980s, Arnold held nightly salons in the onetime Los Angeles pretzel factory he called Zanzibar Studios, named after a papier-mâché clown head Arnold found as a teenager. While he was working, people would come over to the “palace of ornamentation and creative energy” to drink and socialize. Arnold had collected an endless number of props, antiques, and clothing over the years and he used them to create many of the elaborate sets in his surreal photographs.
For Dass, Arnold’s work is newly relevant in today’s culture, which is beginning to embrace an expanding definition of gender and sexuality.
“The [photographs] are visionary portals into this world of glamour and androgyny but with still a deep spirituality and presence and beauty, and it’s really getting at the heart of what it means to be able to fully express oneself in every aspect of [one’s] life.”