KHFA exhibition archives

Forrest Bess: 100 Years

Paintings by Forrest and his friends Chris Martin, Andrew Masullo and Chuck Webster
October 1-23, 2011
Opening reception Saturday, October 1

Written by Susie Kalil

Forrest Bess's own words set the stage for this wryly beautiful, richly poetic show: "I close my eyes and paint what I see on the insides of my eyelids." In celebration of the centennial of Bess (1911-1977), Kirk Hopper Fine Art brings together a collection of the artist's visionary paintings—small baffling images unequivocally derived from his inner being, from dreams and a private symbolism based on obscure sexual references. To Bess, these "ideograms" conveyed universal meaning transmitted through the subconscious. He became obsessed with investigating the mystery of this language, believing the symbology held a key to the secret of eternal life.

Tree of Life, 16" x 13", oil on canvas, 1953

Bess's oddly poignant works of crude abstract shapes were inspired by the land and sea he encountered daily while fishing for a meager livelihood. Bess's house, a ramshackle barge turned upside down and covered with tar and shells, was located on a spit of land reachable only by boat on the Intercoastal Waterway, some 20 miles from Bay City on the southeastern Texas coast. The Gulf held an almost mystical attraction for Bess. In correspondence to Betty Parsons, his art dealer in New York, Bess consistently peppered his views regarding primitive symbolism and hermaphroditism with reports of the environment. Living conditions were rugged for the artist who died poverty stricken. His visions—raw, intuitive expressions of a time and place—were more prodigious than his reputation had yet acknowledged.

Bess's paintings are unabashedly romantic and reverberate with psychological intensity. All of the works have the potential to release certain feelings with which viewers can personally associate. The highly charged, enigmatic landscapes are more than mere impressions of what has been seen or remembered; they suggest and require significant and symbolic thinking. We are encouraged to translate and examine closely their haunting images and perceptual gambits, but are kept at arm's length from fixed interpretations of meaning and message. Their directness and authenticity, idiosyncratic symbolism—both personal and universal—and expressive paint surfaces, are revered by another generation of artists whose works also resonate in the gap between broad cultural memory and personal narrative.

See also
Andrew Masullo CV
Chris Martin: Painting Big
Chris Martin's artist site
Chuck Webster CV

Andrew Masullo, Chuck Webster and Chris Martin, painters of stature and meaning, convey a philosophical affinity for or a shared attitude toward Bess's psychic and bodily process. This exhibition teems with tough minded yet surprisingly spritely works that push and prod painting in various directions, while still acknowledging Bess's transcendental aspirations and primal immediacy. Equally ravishing and mundane, their works are aggressive hybrids of both form and material. The power of such art arises from being animated by an undeniable sense of personal conviction and a profound connection to the reality it represents. At home with the notion of play as well as the high seriousness of late Modernism, they find relevance through the manipulation of unusually personal materials arranged in remarkable ways. Thus while their work may look immediate and spontaneous, it is in fact the product of careful preparation. Masullo, Webster and Martin seek to recharge abstraction by shifting it ever closer to life. Like Bess, they aim for an inclusive abstraction that is expansive in its physical power, an abstraction charged with natural and vernacular references that enter the mind's eye and invite us to look again.

By referring to geometries and patterns derived from daily life, their paintings are user-friendly. All possess a firm belief in abstraction, in the physical facts inherent in their chosen materials, and in the structural logic. Still, the emphasis is on an intensely felt imagining rather than on problem solving. Seducing us with craft, warmth and playfulness, their works are united in a fresh dialogue that itself is yet another link of a wide spectrum of abstract vocabularies. Without posturing, the work speaks of the mystery of the human condition, of certainty and its opposite. The capacity of these works to court the visionary in their restless vocabulary of organic and symbolic shapes attests to the continuing relevance of Bess's art. Masullo, Webster and Martin share with Bess a romantic sense of the artist's mission. As intermediary and seer, the artist struggles to summon through the imagination that which resides in the unconscious. Taken together, these four painters conjure a world in which icons still have the power to confront and heal.

Andrew Masullo (born 1957) currently lives and works in San Francisco. His small-scale Playskool colored compositions are exuberant, insouciant things full of textured wiggles and tipsy geometry that thrash and tumble with infectious energy. Crisp lines and scallop shapes alternate with grids and stripes in snappy, high-key hues, achieving a quirky balance, an undeniable humility.

Chuck Webster (born 1970) lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. His modest emblematic and biomorphic abstractions—clustered pods or loopy tongue shapes, leaf, mound and gourd forms, as well as blobby anthropomorphic heads and limbs—are characterized by buoyant, luminous hues. Painterly surfaces have been built up, sanded and burnished to a waxy sheen.

Chris Martin (born 1954) lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. His compulsive paintings are playful, unpredictable encounters of the world around him, combining found objects and collage in abstract geometries and bold rhythmic patterns. Martin's small abstractions serve as investigations in color, form and texture—some thick and lumpy, others painted with spare restraint indicative of an unstable, constantly shifting internal landscape. Chris Martin: Painting Big, a three-part exhibition (and Martin's first museum solo) opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. in June.

Untitled, oil on canvas, 9" x 12", 1957