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Greg S. Flood


Art Writing

'Roy De Forest: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie' at Brian Gross Fine Art

Roy De Forest 'Let Sleeping Dogs Lie', 1979; Polymer on canvas (74 x 86 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

Walking into ‘Roy De Forest: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’ last week at Brian Gross Fine Art, I entered a world that was at once familiar, but also full of surprises. (See my previous review of his work here) The show has a selection of works culled primarily from either the 1970s or from the post-2000 portion of his career. The real stars of the show are the title painting ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’, 1978 and ‘The Inner Life’, 1977. One of these paintings has been in private collections for years and not been seen publicly in some time. 'Let Sleeping Dogs Lie' on the other hand has been on view for the last several years at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. They also provide a contrast to the later works in the show in size, color, and manner of composition. ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’ is a large work, whose composition is put together from overlapping figures of dogs, people, and more abstract forms in a manner that is reminiscent of a Chagall dreamscape. ‘The Inner Life’ has a more traditional composition format with a coherent landscape and a sense of perspective to it. One other thing that these two share that is different from the others is the tones of the paint. The colors are more muted, contrasting less against each other than the later work while still remaining coherent.

Roy De Forest 'The Inner Life', 1977; Polymer on canvas (66 1/2 x 72 1/2 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

It was with the later works, however, that I had a bit of an epiphany. Roy De Forest is renowned for his incredible sense of color and his ability to balance it perfectly within his works. Few since Matisse have been as successful in achieving such a balance as him. But, the other thing he is also well known for is his use of hand carved frames. I had seen many of these frames before and regarded them as part of the work that made them unique, but I had not considered fully how they related to the work as a whole. While re-reading the catalog for his 1974 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art a few days ago, I realized that they are important extensions of the painted elements on his canvases. De Forest, while nearly always painting landscapes in his works, uses a very primitive way of composing them on the canvas. ‘Hog Farm’ from 2001 is a perfect example of this.

Roy De Forest 'Black Horse Meadow', 2004-5; Acrylic and vinyl on linen (62 x 73 3/4 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

There on the canvas we see an aerial view of a landscape, like looking at a map. In the center is an image of a pig, surrounded by a small fence, which encapsulates its entire world. Outside of that fence is a separate world, where we find a figure of a cowboy, what looks like a pond, a few shapes that could seemingly be gardening beds, etc. Surrounding that is another fence, which separates it from yet another reality, where there are trees, more pigs, a dog, a house, another garden patch, and another cowboy. Surrounding that is the hand carved fame, with its round nubs protruding forward and an eye like form supported on a rod along the top edge between two of the nubs. What I realized is that the frame itself is yet another fence, which separates the realities it encloses from our world, while also serving as the portal into these other places. The nubs are fence posts and the bar with the eye like form is a cattle gate of sorts, ready to open and let us in. On a map, fences are frames that separate areas of the land from one another, and which encompass the different realities of the people that live within those fences. It is the perfect device to use for achieving his pictorial goals.

Roy De Forest 'Hog Farm', 2001; Acrylic on paper on board, artist-designed frame (40 x 50 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

This got me re-evaluating the whole of his career. The presence of handmade frames in De Forest’s work goes all the way back to 1960 at least, if not slightly before. It was at that point in his life – post-master’s degree – that he had returned home to Yakima, Washington to teach for a couple of years. It was there that he dropped abstract painting and began (in a very abstract way at first) painting landscape motifs. There are two works from this very early period that are in the back room of the gallery from this time period. If you go by, I suggest you take a look at them.

Roy De Forest 'Untitled', 1995-96; acrylic, mixed media on paper, artist-designed frame (33 x 39 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

These both have frames made by him, with the earliest, ‘I Cannot Tell a Lie’, 1960 being made up of simply 4 pieces of lathe wood nailed into the sides of the square canvas to which 4 additional pieces of lathe that are slightly shorter and taller than the others are attached. From the bottom piece hangs a string with a knot in the end to hold a couple of beads. The composition of the painting is a white background in which are three colored forms with a black line that circles about them and then heads to bottom of the canvas, where it goes over the side up to the whole where the string comes out. This piece is a landscape, which I failed to grasp the first few times I saw it. What is crucial about the frame is that it is covered with dots of black paint all around the front edge. This is not there just as decoration. In my opinion these dots are the proto forms for the nub fence posts that would appear in later framed works, which therefore makes this simple frame as much a fence as the carved version on ‘Hog Farm’. The second piece from around 1962 has a more elaborate frame of carved elements with painted dots as well. Here the two ways of representing a fence are combined into one, creating a double fence, but also showing his process in working out the iconography of his career.

Roy De Forest 'Untitled', 2001; acrylic on paper on board (34 x 49 1/2 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

When you stop by, take a good look at the frames that Roy De Forest made for his work and think about how they inform the paintings and drawings inside them.

‘Roy De Forest: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’ is on view at Brian Gross Fine Art until May 2, 2015. 248 Utah Street, San Francisco 94103; 415-788-1050. To see more of Roy De Forest’s work CLICK HERE

Roy De Forest 'Untitled', 2003; Acrylic, mixed media on paper, artist-designed frame (40 x 75 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

Roy De Forest 'Untitled', 2000; acrylic, mixed media on paper, artist-designed frame (36 x 48 x 4 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

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