Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Roy De Forest: “Painting the Big Painting,” at Brian Gross, SF

A strong selection of major paintings and drawings from the last decade or more of Roy DeForest's (1930-2007) life hangs at Brian Gross Fine Art in San Francisco (January 8 - February 28, 2009). It is a fitting and deserved tribute, though select and abbreviated, to a long career which produced joyous, energetic paintings notable for quirky drawing, dense composition, and exuberant mark making. Two key words applicable here are be "inventive" and "obsessive," which may then be combined into the single word "visionary."


De Forest's paintings are typically populated by dogs, especially dogs, but also by horses, picaresque characters and the occasional bird or rabbit born from the bright color, dark outlines, intense patterning, and dabs and dashes one long ago learned to expect and look forward to. Practically every inch of each surface is elaborately covered with colored shapes, scumbling, hatching, and Hershey’s Kiss-like smooches of paint pressed straight from the tube. Some areas are literally built up in relief. These surfaces are brilliantly adorned, and each work is enclosed in an eccentric, painted, artist-made frame. In terms of sheer, raucous, physical painting and presentation, De Forest always delivers.

De Forest’s cluttered and congested imagery may seem fantastic, but anyone who spends time in the desert knows there is plenty of life there. Besides, a story must have characters. Heads of both animals and people are, for the most part, portrayed in profile or straight-on, and even though each painting is littered and crammed with them none looks at or seems to be fully aware of the presence any of the others. Each is in its own world of now, faintly looking off into the near distance, as if trying to discern, in anticipation, what will happen next; this is the dog consciousness, the animal existence vigilance and self-containment. The space, light, and texture here evoke notions of some Ancient West, a place that is vast, broad, deep, silent and empty. The sense of time is the immediate and ongoing present. De Forest's visionary inclination is enhanced by his use of a very human-scale medium-- painting-- to channel a specific place and way of being, and is both acknowledgment and evocation of animal spirit: something pure, decent, keen, knowing, basic, and fragile. There is an ecology of the co-existence, cooperation, and equilibrium of living things. This is the big story De Forest tells.

The exhibition's eponymous work lifts figures from Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which, given the inventive liberties both artists take with depicting the figure, seems quite apt. At the same time, more importantly, this gesture signals something more than De Forest's alignment with the senior artist’s effort towards invention or radicalism, but is also an extended reach for the much sought after, hard-earned, and almost serendipitous outcome of meaning compressed in and blossoming from a hand-made image. This historical reference might immediately spark another, say, James Ensor’s Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889. But perhaps even more to the point, this exhibition seemingly makes plain to this viewer that De Forest’s more significant model may be the devotional and decorative aspects of fourteenth century Sienese and Florentine painting, such as Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maestà. In the nearly seven hundred years of Western art since then one rarely finds an artist, especially a modern or contemporary one, who consistently and commandingly uses similiarly dense, figure-filled compositions, artificial and invented settings, shallow spaces hinting at depth, elaborate framing, decorative components, and narrative as De Forest. Rather than being devoted to God, however, these paintings are devoted to the raw, open, and wild, yet very sophisticated energy of Dog (didja see that one coming?). One might say that De Forest’s religion is the natural world, the pure spirit of animals, a kind of animism found the joy of taking plain materials and making something true and vital come to life.

Chris Ashley
February 2009

Image: Roy De Forest, Incident at Devil's Island, 1992; acrylic on linen, artist frame with sculpture; 85 x 92-1/2 x 3 inches, Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco

Also published at Look, See.

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