Though all the images on display in Photographs 1984-2014 by Peter Arnell at Manhattan's Milk Gallery are black and white, their contents couldn’t be more different. Outtakes from erotic fashion campaigns hang next to blurred New York City skylines. There are high-contrast photos of city crosswalks; a series of geishas in repose; close-ups of clothing out of context; the World Trade Center before and after tragedy; and a large selection dedicated to showcasing women’s feet. (In fact, Arnell’s fascination with feet has its own book.)
But then, Arnell’s show at Milk isn’t your typical retrospective. The artist is better known as an advertising and design guru and this is the public’s first chance to peek behind the curtain and glimpse a few quiet moments of the respected—and profitable—businessman, whose agency closed last year after three decades of working with brands like Donna Karan, Chrysler, PepsiCo and HomeDepot.
Arnell says longtime friend and frequent collaborator Frank Gehry encouraged him to organize and exhibit his personal photos. The architect is the curator and designer of the Milk Gallery show, responsible for the order of the prints and the zig-zagging walls on which they hang. Some of the walls are solid, while others look like exposed studs, a layout that turns the open gallery into a bit of a labyrinth. At the rear of the gallery original prints from the show are clustered in mismatching frames, some of which provide the show’s only color. Gehry’s visage pops up inside a few. (The docent on duty referred to the Pritzker Prize winner as a "sweet little man.")
As his ad career indicates, Arnell has an excellent eye. And it is easy to see Gehry’s aesthetic values present in many of Arnell’s juxtapositions of organic and man-made forms (a woman bent to fit the curves of a bathtub; an almost-nude next to the ordered lines of vertical blinds; the sharp edges of a zipper over exposed breasts). Many of the chromatic prints on view at Milk were even shot on mobile phones. This is a jet-setter whose inspiration is everywhere and rarely in focus.
Many of the show’s best photos play with positive and negative space in a way that elevates buildings, clothing, and bodies into stunning displays of texture and contrast. But the crowded show also features a few pieces that feel like amateur Photoshop experiments. If this show is to make the case for Arnell as more than an expert salesman, then why would Gehry include snaps that couldn't even make Instagram’s Explore tab?
Still, this softer side of the outspoken exec suggests there can be peace in the chaotic world of mad men and that even those programmed to turn every pretty picture into slogans and logos can still find a few images worth keeping for themselves.
Photographs 1984-2014 by Peter Arnell runs through April 1, 2014, at Milk Gallery.