Magazine Feature: Uptown Magazine: Through the Windows of the Mind by Anne Ellis, 2007

 Through the Windows of the Mind.

 Ronald Forbes’ paintings not only reflect what we see, but how we see it, and what we think about it. Dealing as much with the world of the mind as the world of the eye, their life is much longer and more intriguing than any simple visual image. Not that there is anything wrong with simple visual images, but after a while they tend to pale. Ronnie’s paintings, on the other hand, continue to reveal more and more about the human condition and the way humanity has responded to its own environment. It’s not easy, for painting is essentially a two dimensional business, creating a third dimension, depth, is difficult enough; adding several more dimensions of thought and time and meaning requires phenomenal efforts from the artist.

 How is this achieved? It is done in many different ways; illusions; suggestions; symbols; references; and a blend of stylistic differences that triggers the viewer’s response. Of course the catalyst is a sort of magic that flows from the depth of Ronnie’s own fertile imagination on to the canvas. What we see is not only a scene from nature but a recollection of that scene and a visual representation of its impact on the artist.  He presents not only the magic of seeing but of feeling and knowing: fragments of memory and meaning that coalesce over time. As he says “Context creates meaning and the viewer brings established views that affect their experience of a work of art.”  Ronnie gently subverts those beliefs in order to open his pictures to a much more interesting series of interpretations. Painting that begins on the canvas enters the subconscious. We all add our own brushstrokes, they colour our own picture of events no matter how invisible they may be to others.

 Acrylic is his favoured medium. It has all the qualities of oil with an added facility that allows an almost hard-edged photographic precision: ideal for a method that uses several painting styles presented simultaneously. Linen rather than canvas offers a softer finer ground. It does not disrupt the smoothly painted image with a course texture of its own, and contributes to the illusion that his paint has been cast on the picture almost as if projected like an image on a screen; very apt for a painter who also makes intriguing short films that investigate how we asses visual information.

 The painting Cultivated Tourist’ demonstrates this very effect. It is full of delightful ambiguity. On a background that could be parched earth, or parchment, but is in fact the magnified skin on the back of his own hand (but all are possibilities; and all are equally relevant to our appreciation of the painting), floats a representation of a well-known Claude Lorraine harbour scene with sailing ships moored in a golden-lit idyll of antiquity. The main figure is caught in the glare of projected light. He sits at a table peering into the distance through a pair of binoculars, ignoring the scene behind him. As we peer at him, he desperately tries to bring some distant object into focus. It is a surreal view of the world and that is often what we get when we travel halfway across the globe to see its wonders. Just like the ‘cultivated tourist’ depicted in this painting, we miss the obvious in pursuit of the impossible.  The figure is a device prompting us to consider the humour of this all-too-common human activity. Carrying the reflections it creates notions of imprinting, like some member of a cinema audience leaving before the show is over. As tourists we all block someone else’s view. We also all carry our own views with us wherever we go, and whatever we look at is seen through that imprint. Ronald believes that, “We arrive in life not having seen a brochure, move around making observations and notes, learn many things experience sensory pleasure and pain and then finish the tour more knowledgeable, but not always happier or wiser. Done that. Been through life, and got the tee-shirt.”  

 The figures in his paintings are often self portraits, self-deprecating portraits. In ‘Optical Delusions (the Highlands)’ Ronnie stands behind a seated female figure, his wife Sheena. The figures, cut out like paper characters in a child’s theatre, stand proud of the projected landscape. Oblivious to the miracle of the bird in flight, the female is taking a photograph of something in the distance. Binoculars in hand, Ronnie regards the viewer as he points out the unseen object of desire. We should see it, but we can’t. Is this a metaphor for the way some people go through life, not quite seeing the point? It could even be symbolic of painting itself; at least the way it is viewed in many galleries.  Ronnie is not above poking fun at his own behaviour. He finds his position and his vocation slightly absurd. And perhaps it is, but that ability to self-mock is what makes his work so intriguing. It is a technique akin but infinitely more subtle than Magritte’s super-real painting of a pipe which carries the title ‘Ceci n’est pas une Pipe’ or Braques’ remark that he could not paint a beautiful woman, but he could make a beautiful painting of a woman. Nothing is simple; nothing is too apparent, even subtlety teeters on the brink, swaying in and out of the obvious as it struggles to maintain a very delicate balance, somewhere between absolute comprehension and complete inaccessibility.

 His use of double sometimes triple collage is a deliberate and difficult technique, one that has taken years to develop and refine. Ronnie, in his usual modest manner, describes it in such a way as to make it sound deceptively simple. “Instead of sticking flat images together to make a new picture, I am using three dimensions in the form of people and objects like tables and vases of flowers, and projecting prepared images onto these, and then re-photographing this tableau. I then adjust and manipulate these until I have results that I can paint from.” That explains the physical process but doesn’t quite cover the many intellectual nuances that Ronnie creates when he includes well known classical images and equally well-known modern allusions within a single framework. In ‘The Death of Socrates’, he pays homage to the eighteenth century originator Jaques-Louis David’s masterpiece. The figures present the same poses: Socrates identifiable by his pose, a raised index finger pointing against the infinity of time. Ronnie heightens the drama by making Socrates as young as the very youths he was condemned for corrupting. David did not miss the original political implications of the philosopher’s enforced suicide, neither does Ronnie. Only he sets the death scene against a background of the kind of luscious images of food that television cookery programmes project on our screens on a daily basis: symbols of the corruptibility of our own flesh, and tools in its very destruction.

 ‘Riddles and Puzzles’ the title of a catalogue that accompanied a 2002 Chicago exhibition, typifies the difficulty in categorising Ronald’s work. It is plainly figurative, it ought to be easy, but it is layered, there are contradictory oppositions, delightfully obscure references and complex hidden meanings. He maintains that he has always “been a collagist, bringing together images from the world around us, a synthesis that establishes a new reality.” That new reality includes fragmented form, objects out of context, and new concepts formed from very strange juxtapositions of time and space.

 ‘Catalogue of Disasters’, a huge painting, is divided into nine separate panels each representing a modern version of Eve’s gift to Adam: an action that Ronnie portrays very much as a joint venture; both parties equally desirous of tasting the fruit of knowledge.  Each panel superimposes the human figures with disembodied domestic appliances, which are, after all, the application of human knowledge. The lusciousness of the painted foliage an indulgent evocation of the natural paradise the Garden of Eden is supposed to represent. The same feeling of paradise lost is felt in ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, Forbes’ deconstruction of Poussin’s masterpiece.  Just as Titian’s reconstructions of the ancient myths depicting Diana’s primitive fury at the activities of the hapless Acteon are overlaid with adverts from food and underwear catalogues. Nor is it just the ancient masters who are revisited. In ‘Riddle Number One’ Ingres’ Oedipus is propped up by a visual pun of a tri-partite pillar that challenges our basic belief in the solidity of form. It also prefigures the solution to the last part of the riddle. The hero is in deep discussion with a goggle-eyed sphinx. His own eyes, so soon to be sightless, stare out at us, even though the head is in profile. His body, painted so as to resemble pieces torn from some shiny catalogue, seems to emerge, like some insect, out of a chrysalis. Both figures are surrounded by several larvae-like forms, indicators surely, of yet further metamorphosis of the theme.

  Any analysis of the paintings of Ronald Forbes is bound to end in some kind of failure. He cannot be categorised. His work does not fit in any one of the oh-so-handy categorical boxes. It has been influenced by his love of film and photography; his awareness of myth and magic; an interest in the presentation methods of modern manufacture; and his desire to bring all these disparate elements together in order to accurately represent the world of the twenty-first century.  These are deep pictures in every sense of the word. And that is the lasting fascination, for no matter how many times one looks at them yet another layer of meaning springs to mind. They reflect the present through the mirror of the past and are best seen through the windows of an open mind. “Over the years much of his work has revolved around the idea, indeed, the puzzle of belief, illusion, and reality. These qualities can be regarded in purely perceptual terms (i.e. believing what we see,) but can also be regarded in a wider cultural context, beyond art.”

  © Anne Ellis