“Stories told in the dark” – haunting visions of the painter who operated on his own genitals | Paint
HHow varied and strange are the paintings of Forrest Bess. Goofy black tables stumbling around a room. Rows of identical mustachioed faces and rows of dicks and something like a snowflake made out of string. A face in a golden flower, if it is a flower, in front of a mesa under a red sky. Sometimes they are elusive. The types of optical disturbances you get when you press your knuckles against your closed eyelids. Creatures in a field: are they dogs? Cattle? Sheep? Arching over them is either the plugged head of a penis, or a bicycle saddle, or something else.
Things get even stranger in Out of the Blue, the first institutional exhibition of the late American artist’s work in the UK. Born in 1911 south of Bay City, Bess worked for a period in his youth as an oilfield hoodlum, briefly studied architecture and, after a period of false start of awkward expressive figuration and still lifes, was attached to a camouflage unit during World War II. war before suffering a collapse. Beginning in the 1940s, Bess began recording the visions that came to her before she slept. He said he drew and then painted them as accurately as possible. The more you look, the more their apparent simplicity and straightforwardness reveal a complex mind.
Washed in artificial light, the small paintings gleam against the black walls (Bess has always wanted to hang her paintings on black walls, but this is the first time they have.) Hanging roughly chronologically, the paintings of Bess are stories told in the dark; many, with their very basic unpainted wooden frames (salvaged wood wherever he found it) were also meant to be held, examined and deciphered. The painter understood that it was about objects as much as images, and messages from the unconscious as much as abstractions. His paintings kept changing but somehow always stayed the same.
Bess seemed to be their transcriber as much as their author, and the paintings themselves seem entirely elaborate, with few revisions or obvious mind shifts in their construction. They seem direct and emphatic, but often frustrating and unreadable. Its environment in Chinquapin Bayou is in them – reflections of moonlight on water, sun and moon. Making a meager living trawling shrimp and catching and selling baitfish to sport fishermen, Bess has lived much of her life on a small island at the edge of a community just off the coast of Texas in a treeless landscape of mudflats and low islands, sandbars and bayous. He painted a succession of dilapidated dwellings that he frequently had to rebuild following hurricanes and storms. The things seen and experienced here no doubt entered into his paintings, but they are also filled with shapes and symbols that are difficult to decipher, although he also drew annotated nativity sheets which gave an idea of what these symbols were referring.
Bess was never quite a loner or an outsider, and showed with the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York from 1950 to 1967, where his stable mates included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and, later, Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin. However, Bess felt like an asshole in New York and retreated south. His sense of self-discovery was not dependent on the city. Bess was also an inveterate letter writer and maintained a correspondence with the distinguished art historian Meyer Schapiro (one of the first champions); other correspondents included Carl Jung and Bruno Bettelheim, as well as Parsons herself. He also wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower.
Although sometimes considered autodidact, he was both well-connected and intellectually curious. He studied alchemy, Taoism and sexuality. Bess also wanted to become a hermaphrodite and made at least two attempts at self-surgery in the 1950s. Bess wrote a thesis outlining her ideas, illustrated with medieval woodcuts, medical illustrations and photographs of her own genitalia . The dissertation has now been lost, although fragments of illustrated letters on the subject are included in Camden’s exhibition, along with pages of his letters, gallery catalogs and other documents (the cases are too high to that small children encounter the most alarming images included here).
Many artists have felt driven by ideas and beliefs that we might find opaque, naive, or tiresome, but without them the work of Hilma af Klint, Kandinsky, and Mondrian would not have developed as it did. Theosophy, mysterious color symbolism, religious systems, and even the belief in extraterrestrial visitation have all had their place in the work of some artists, alongside more mainstream religious and philosophical beliefs, whether well or badly digested. How well did Pollock know his Jungian archetypes, or Barnett Newman his Kabbalah? Does it matter? A rich inner life should not be flouted if it gets you through the day.
There is a deep determination and precision in some of Bess’s most enigmatic works. In a painting, two regular pink rectangles lie on a dark background. Moving away from a rectangle, an uneven area of raw, broken red spills over the edge of the canvas. The sculptor Robert Gober (who thought a lot about Bess) described these rectangles as testicles. In other paintings, one can read visionary landscapes, wells in the body, dualities and splits, orifices and golden sperm running through the testicles, and heaps of symbols jostling in the brain. Bess died in 1977 and his work remains both relentless and elusive. It still haunts me.
This article was last modified on October 4, 2022. An earlier version stated that Forrest Bess served in World War I, rather than World War II.