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Roy De Forest @ Brian Gross

"A Figure of Our Times", 1972, 72 × 14"
When it came to lighting a fire in viewers’ eyes, painter Roy De Forest (1930-2007) had the goods.  A quintessential and iconic late modernist, De Forest drew from aboriginal, folk and outsider art traditions to create a magical kingdom populated by eccentric characters and animals.  With electric colors, a flattened perspective, and a thick, straight-from-the tube pointillism, De Forest created a unique style of Funk that set him apart from a group of estimable peers that included, most prominently, William Wiley, Bruce Conner and Robert Arneson.
 
A Figure of Our Times samples his oeuvre with paintings, drawings and assemblages made between 1960 and 2004.   Whether or not you’re familiar with De Forest’s art hardly matters.  The qualities that defined him appear here at full-strength, and they give off serious mojo without once reminding us of the faux-naif poseurs who pretend to engage similar sources.
 
If there’s a fault in this show, it’s that there’s only one large painting viewable in the gallery’s main room.  It’s A Figure of Our Times, and it’s a knockout.   It features a large brown dog at the center surrounded by humans communicating telepathically, via dotted beams that function like comic thought balloons.  The painting highlights De Forest’s singular obsession with dogs, revealing a cosmology in which animals were kings and humans were lesser life forms.  He painted them as dopey caricatures, isolated and walled off from each other.  Whether that relationship reflected his actual sentiments is unclear, but it remained consistent throughout a four-decade career.  Fine large-scale examples can be found in two other canvases — Black Horse Meadow (2004) and North of Patagonia (2004-05).  Neither is in the show proper, but they’re prominently displayed in the gallery’s back room, which visitors are welcome to view.  The latter work depicts, with riveting clarity, a vision of a tropical paradise inhabited by lost souls.
 
"Texas", 2002, 48 × 42 × 12"

A favorite mannerism of De Forest’s was perching sculpted wood figures and objects on hand-carved frames to set up counter narratives to the already complicated dramas taking place inside his canvases.  Texas (2002), a hexagon-shaped assemblage, demonstrates that approach.  It’s festooned with a steer and a tree on top and a broom on either side.  Such visual outbursts, when they cropped up in the mid and late ‘60s, helped spawn the famous “Dude Ranch Dada” epithet, which, when it appeared in The New York Times in 1971, in reference to Wiley, ignited a rivalry, pitting West Coast Funk against the Minimalist-influenced (painting as object) works that were then coming out of New York.  

Concerning White Elephants, an assemblage from 1960, shows De Forest capable of creating down-and-dirty Funk. Yet compared to what De Forest’s cohorts produced both during and after the Beat era, it demonstrates that assemblage was not his strongest suit.  It was drawing.  Drawing gave him an escape hatch from the horror vacui that dominated his paintings.  It was a realm where he was absolutely free.  Where in his canvases he rarely deviated from filling all available space with people and animals situated against dense, crazy quilt-like backgrounds, his drawings were loose, wide-open arenas where anything could and did happen.
 
A fine example is an untitled piece from 1972 that shows a couple standing side-by-side, expressionless.  Once you get past the shock of their blue and red wigs, which are rendered in tidy loops that recall a concatenation of Brillo pads, the genius of the composition registers.  A line running down the center, almost like a zipper, separates the pair, creating the effect of a torn diptych through which another scene is visible. 
 
More enigmatic still is everything else that surrounds the subjects: loopy gestural lines, geometric and decorative patterning, shading, crosshatching, fuzzy spray painted dots and scrawls reminiscent of Miro, an artist De Forest greatly admired.  
 
"Untitled", 1972, 24 × 30 × 3/4"
 
“I have the idea that the more stuff you can get into a painting, the better off you are,” he told Leslie Goldberg in an interview conducted for the di Rosa Preserve in 2002.   Still, I can’t help but wonder what might have happened had he pushed with equal force in the opposite direction, simplifying his work as he did so capably in his drawings.  
 
The time may be ripe for an enterprising curator to pursue that question. 
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Roy De Forest: “A Figure of Our Times” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through October 27, 2012.

  

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