Shunga Gallery Interviews the Acclaimed Californian Pop Surrealist Van Arno
Marijn Kruijff
6 min

Shunga Gallery Interviews the Acclaimed Californian Pop Surrealist Van Arno

6 min

Last week we “sat down” for an interview with a great representative of the Lowbrow Art (aka. Pop Surrealism) movement, Van Arno (1963-2021). Despite his busy schedule (he’s in the middle of a move), he was able to take some time off and talk about his fascination for the legendary punk band The Ramones, classic Hollywood stars, car accidents and his thoughts on erotica, shunga, censorship and much more…


Fig.1. ‘Smoking Ixchell‘ (2017) by Van Arno

1)  Can you tell us something about your childhood? Did you grow up in an artistic environment? How did art come into your life?

Art came into my life at the library! I was an only child, and my father died when I was very small. I was interested in regular kid things, pirates and knights and monsters. So spending so much time alone, I started to draw these things. I also remember being struck by the PBS series Civilization which began a life long study of European art history.

2)  I am a big fan of The Ramones (saw them once in 1996 and still cherish this memory) and therefore was thrilled to see your references in some of your paintings. What is your connection with this legendary New York punk band and your fascination with Dee Dee Ramone?

CBGBs had a gallery space next door to the famous nightclub, and around 2000, Jonathan LeVine curated 3 shows I took part in.  So that made me proud. I remember going to Hilly’s office and seeing a pile of cash on his desk. Jonathan said “oh that’s Hilly’s t-shirt money”. I read Dee Dee’s autobiography, and it’s remarkably good, and totally in his voice. The Ramones still sound great! …and their music is so simple. But only those specific personalities could have sculpted it. And they hated each other, but they stuck to it for years because they knew they were doing something important.

sweet tart by van arno

Fig.2. ‘Sweet Tart‘ (2014)

3) Is there one specific artist or work of art that made an indelible impression on you and made you decide to become an artist too? And why him/her?

I wonder if I mostly saw an absence of any one making an impression on me! No seriously, Robert Williams was starting to show when I was in school, and I certainly liked his work, but I wanted to do something less jokey. I loved historic work by Rubens and Tiepolo and Leyendecker. Most of my visual tricks are from masters who came before me. Most of my my concepts are from my weird individuality.

4) Some of your paintings include references to classical Hollywood movie stars. What is your favorite movie?

I like Hollywood history, and living in Los Angeles makes it seem very present. I love Jean Harlow, who had a very distinctive face. Also Barbara Stanwyck, who was in Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve. My enduring favorite film is probably The Night Of The Hunter (1955) with Robert Mitchum and the only movie directed by Charles Laughton.\

van arno angela davis

Fig.3. ‘Angela Davis’ Roundhouse‘ (2011)

5)  What was the idea behind your “car crash” paintings ‘Montgomery Is Resculpted By Chevy And Resurrected By Liz‘ (Fig.4) depicting Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor and ‘Jayne’s got that old time religion‘ (2006)?

Elizabeth Taylor hosted a party at her home during the filming of Raintree County (1957). Her co-star, Montgomery Clift stayed late and drank to much. He wrecked his car just down the hill, and Liz ran down and saved his life by clearing his airway. His face never looked quite the same. I love stories that are true and dramatic and involve public figures. I’m surprised no one ever depicted it before! Jayne Mansfield is famously believed to have been decapitated in a car wreck, but actuality her wig just fell off. But this was a case of the legend being better than the truth. The title refers to her association with Anton LaVey and his church of Satan, certainly the oldest religion.

montgomery clift liz taylor van arno

Fig.4. ‘Montgomery Is Resculpted By Chevy And Resurrected By Liz

6) What is your working process? Do you have a clear idea about the outcome?

Usually I do but sometimes things evolve on the canvas. Things that look like a good composition in a small sketch can sometimes look wrong or unbalanced at a larger scale. Sometimes other elements need to be added.

7) In an earlier interview I read that artistic erotica doesn’t interest you. As you might have noticed we include a lot of content on the Japanese art of shunga. Are you familiar with this art form? If so, does it appeal to you and why?

I like Shunga and I enjoy this site because Shunga is hot! I remember seeing examples of it when I was way too young and I have always been a fan. But enjoying erotica doesn’t make me want to create it. I like a lot of art that other people are doing way better than I could.

van arno medea's idea

Fig.5. ‘Medea’s Idea‘ (2016)

8) Have you ever dealt with censorship in the past? If so, what was the reason? (Was it a specific work?)

I have. And as a young artist I was pretty arrogant about not conforming to arbitrary rules that I felt were silly. So in the course of producing the images I wanted to make, I noticed something amazing. No one challenged me or scolded me or criticized me at all. I never heard An unkind word.

But the curator who included me in a museum show had to put her job on the line with her board of directors. Juxtapoz had to switch printers because their printer in S Carolina wouldn’t handle it. So my choice of subject matter affected other people and I had to keep that in mind.

van arno olive oyl popeye

Fig.6. ‘Clean Shaven Gams‘ (2006) – Look for the Magritte reference on the wall

9) My favorite painting is The Tar Baby (2011). I like the poses of the female figures and your fascinating translation of this specific tale (which I was not familiar with). Do you have a personal favorite? Or is this like choosing your favorite child?

It is difficult to choose, but my favorite painting is always the one I’m about to start. However my favorite show was Upright (Fig.1, 2 and 5), at Thinkspace in 2018. I guess because the pieces were very consistent and all complemented each other. These pieces were all rather still and thoughtful, compared to previous work- like Tar Baby– which is about figures in action. I think I’ll do more work with more motion.

van arno nude female anarchy

Fig.7. ‘Hester Prynne Pricked‘ (2010)

van arno nude dancing females

Fig.8. The Three Graces‘ (2012)

van arno painting chicken


van arno Megan's Violent Nature

Fig.10. ‘Megan’s Violent Nature‘ (2013)

On Van Arno’s YouTube channel you can find the following entertaining animation…

Van Arno is also a passionate figure drawing instructor at Gnomon School of Visual Effects and on his YouTube channel you’ll find some great technical demonstrations ..!!

Click HERE for more interviews with other “sensual” artists or here for our earlier, extensive treatment on Van Arno….!!

Did you like our interview with Van Arno? Leave your reaction in the comment box below….!!