Roy De Forest, Springtime in Canary Flats, 2006 (detail)
By Victoria Dalkey
Roy De Forest has been called a funk artist, a visionary, a mythmaker and a nut. Of these, he preferred the last appellation and wrote what many consider to be the “manifesto” of the Nut Art Movement, a strange and steadily proliferating style that sprang up among the almond trees in the orchards around the quiet university town of Davis in the 1960s and ’70s.
De Forest once described the nut artist as a “peculiar individual” and nut art as “a squirrel in the forest of visual delights.”
In his statement accompanying a large show of unconventional artists organized by well-known nut Clayton Bailey in 1972, he asserted that the “unfettered” nut artist created art as a “fantasy with the amazing intention of totally building a miniature world into which the nut could retire with all his friends, animals, and paraphernalia.”
You couldn’t ask for a better description of DeForest himself or his next-door neighbor Bailey, or David Gilhooly, Maija Peeples-Bright, Peter VandenBerge, and Robert Arneson, his fellow faculty member at UC Davis.
They were sometimes referred to as “The Candy Store Bunch,” for the quaint gallery in Folsom that had a national reputation for idiosyncratic art by the above-mentioned, as well as displaced Chicagoans Jim Nutt, Gladys Niilsson and Karl Wirsum, who taught at Sacramento State.
“Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest” at the Oakland Museum of California explores the dreamlike vision of this truly eccentric artist through 50 large and colorful paintings and sculptures. The show is accompanied by a lively, well-researched and beautifully illustrated catalog by noted art historian and curator Susan Landauer with an introduction by independent curator and critic Michael Duncan, who calls De Forest “a tough nut to crack.”
Which he is.
At times over the years I have found his work trivial and cute, overrun with dogs (his tutelary spirits) and horses, comical cowpokes and desert sages (reminiscent of traumatized Mr. Naturals), and dotted pathways made of thick candy kisses squeezed straight from the paint tube.
At other times, I have marveled at his complex, interlocking compositions, psychic landscapes where a horse’s hay-colored vomit becomes a startled woman’s hair, a dog’s comic-book speech bubble holds a menacing image of a steamship on a dark sea, and a horse’s torso opens up on a woman held prisoner behind a barred window.
Though seemingly primitive, his paintings and sculptures are sophisticated works that mix art brut rawness, Picassoesque invention, the innocent charm of Henri Rousseau, and the dreamy romanticism of Marc Chagall.
De Forest’s vast knowledge of art history is apparent in “On the Sea Wall,” a witty takeoff on Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” and the nonchalant seated nude in “Private Lives” that reminds one of Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe.” References to Greek and Celtic mythology pop up in “Tropic of Capricorn” and “Dogcart from Hell,” and he gives us a comic yet disturbing take on “Alice in Wonderland” in “We Catch a Bleeding Hare.”
From the dark imagery and schizoid symmetry of the paintings “Recollections of a Sword Swallower” and “The Dipolar Girls Take a Voyage on the St. Lawrence” to the delicate whimsy of the mixed media sculptures “On the Way to Wales” and “Off the Coast of Patagonia,” one marvels at De Forest’s sheer powers of invention, brilliant use of color and fascinating mythologizing. He’s a nut well worth cracking, and this exhibition and catalog should be required viewing and reading for students of the remarkable art and art history of our area.