John Yoyogi Fortes isn’t a street artist but he paints like one – one who’s especially well-versed in American and European Expressionism. His specialty is the urban fever dream, a realm in which subconscious fears and desires play out against backdrops of crumbling paint-spattered walls. It’s brightly hued and richly textured world into which the artist inserts comic- and graffiti-influenced characters that are in psychic pain. They appear — along with forms that are collaged, sprayed, and hand-painted — in colliding planes that rest on layers of scraped paint that recall surfaces where concert posters are continuously stripped and re-stapled.
Fortes creates an electrically charged, claustrophobic atmosphere filled with high-def images and stupefying excess, where little makes sense and everything seems wrapped in a cocoon of white noise. Thus, in Fortes, fans Francis Bacon, Manuel Ocampo, Sue Coe and others of an expressionist bent will find a kindred spirit – one who’s also absorbed the influences of underground comic artists like Robert Crumb, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and the whole freak-show milieu of RAW Vision, the journal of outsider art.
Runt, the largest (120 x 84”) painting on view, is typical of the artist’s output over the past few years. Out of a ground of geometric swatches laced with vertical stains and loose spray-painted lines, faces and figures appear like apparitions. Some are vividly rendered; others seem vaporous, as if summoned by a darkroom trickster in an early 20th century “spirit photograph”. The painting’s most prominent feature is a trio of elongated eyeballs that hang by tentacles from a mask in the manner of Roth’s “Rat Fink” character — an expression of extreme cartooning and, perhaps, a pointed reference to the ubiquity of the surveillance camera. I say perhaps, because Fortes’ works rarely make direct statements about anything; they take an allegorical stance, but their allusions are wide-open.
Where in the past Fortes’ work pointedly referred to issues of race, identity, sexuality and global politics, the paintings here seem less driven by conscious intentions than by an urge to allow his arsenal of self-invented characters and appropriated images to interact freely. Like many of the Lowbrow/Pop Surrealist artists with whom he feels an affinity, Fortes tends to back away from overt proscriptions, preferring instead to play hot potato with live ammunition to see what ignites.
Untitled, a portrait of an urban hipster, is cheerfully apocalyptic. Sprouting from its Picasso-influenced face is a thought balloon filled with red splotches of blood. Below the face, which rests on a pedestal, is a severed hand onto which spills more blood. It Sounded A Lot Better Before I Said It features a boxy figure. Its heart is exposed, and one of its severed limbs sports a swastika-like crest. Both are fine examples of how Fortes projects terror into a comic format.
In this exhibition, he fills much of the gallery with small works, many of which seem small-bore when compared to his more expansive, wall-sized excursions. A reoccurring motif these small paintings is a cigarette-smoking primate whose picaninny visage appears most memorably on Smoking Monkeys, a series of 65 wall-mounted paint can lids. This racist caricature should shock, but when pulled out of context, as it is here, it loses power. To understand why, look at a prior work like Immaculate Rendition (2008), where Fortes used a similar image to devastating effect, and you see that as an abstract painter with narrative inclinations – however abstruse — Fortes only hits full stride when he has a big canvas.
–DAVID M. ROTH
John Yoyogi Fortes: Parallel Boondocks @ Jack Fischer through Dec. 4, 2010
To learn more about John Yoyogi Fortes watch the video of him creating Immaculate Rendition.