New York

Roy De Forest

Allan Frumkin Gallery

It was good to see Joan Brown in the Whitney Biennial, but I wish someone like Roy De Forest could have been there too. By herself, Brown was funky and provincial. With another artist like De Forest, we might have started to understand the strength of figurative painting in this country. It would have demonstrated how different this kind of painting can be even when it shares a common sensibility. Both De Forest and Brown speak to a highly knowledgeable, connoisseur audience which is for the most part unconcerned with the New York scene. Both work with overt subject matter, narrative, and expressionist color. Neither has any “followers.” Independent and stubborn, their work appears to New York provincials as anachronistic and/or funky. But they do not submit to the confines of labels. De Forest’s spiritual colleagues—Brown, Thiebaud, Arneson, Wiley—all avoid the pitfalls of New York realist painting. That work invariably strikes one as either grotesque or sarcastic, and, either way, dehumanized. It may be that the Californians don’t feel they are separated from their audience or the art world by their styles; that they are pawns in an ideological battle; or that they need to be defensive about their minority status. For them, there is no meaning in the “return” to figurative art which we are hearing about too much lately. This allows artists like De Forest the pleasure of being both gentle and passionate.

The new paintings are similar to most of De Forest’s work since the late ’60s. People and animals swirl around in a suspended space, anchored down to earth by the surrounding trees and landscape. Animals take on very individual characteristics, and some humans slip in and out of dog or rabbit personas. The animals have gotten more fairytale-ish, appearing out of a medieval enchanted forest, while the humans are clearly African or American aboriginal. One dog, on his back with his genitals showing, was an amazing feat of painting—neither caricature nor fussily detailed. De Forest paints individual dogs—which in itself is truly wonderful.

Dots straight from the tube are in abundance as usual, and they signify anything from fur to “seeing in paint.” Many of the paintings have, in their upper right-hand corners, a man standing in for De Forest; the dots come out like a ray from his eyes.

But the best thing about these new works is how the lines seem looser and more meandering, not quite as tight and structured. Before the large paintings tended to be like Rousseaus; they are now more automatic. The lines are like trails, even when they describe the sinuous line of a rabbit’s ear or mountain range. They are trails of De Forest’s hand, and imply traveling over a distance, over a succession of spaces and experience. They imply narrative, and De Forest’s dreaming visualized in the idea of narrative.

Jeff Perrone