Dennis Adrian, Chicago2002

 Riddles and Puzzles

 Ronald Forbes is a metaphysical painter out of the necessities of his own perceptions. His metaphysical qualities are those which can be found in much modern and older art; a sensibility which evidences an unshakeable conviction that the full perception and comprehension of our experience are not and cannot be achieved through logic alone and that there are other forms of knowledge to which we have access in art through images and symbols as well as the forms and colors which manifest them.

 In Forbes’s painting, this sort of awareness (logical thought plus perceptual awareness) is a disrupted state in which no one single structural system or vocabulary of images has primacy.  Accordingly, Forbes’s imagery seems never to be presented through a consistent and uniform language of form and image, but usually presents several such systems simultaneously within a “single” composition.  The result has been called collage-like.  This is certainly the case where images utilizing differing systems of vision and representation overlap.  For example, in Forbes’s Ideal Idyll II of 2002, the kneeling muscular figure of a man overlaps images of large tropical leaves: these latter are painted with careful naturalistic volumetric modelling in tonal, and chromatic variations that define their arrangement and relative positions.  The male figure is presented with an odd squashed modelling that seems constructed of torn and flattened pieces of a volumetrically modelled figure.  This figure is itself overlapped lower left by a reappearance of the tropical leaves, though now constricted by triangular geometric bands.  These three elements and the beach landscape of the setting all require different systems of visual interpretation not just because they are images of different sorts of things but because they are constructed by different if obscurely related kinds of perception as well.

 In Forbes’s work a primary kind of stable interrelationship between and among the out-of-sync visual systems is achieved through careful and harmonic formal relationships among the sections making use of different visual means.  Forbes treats these parts of the image as areas on the surface of the painting (where of course they are), that is, as elements in two-dimensional compositions of planar elements within which are indications of volume and pictorial space.  Of course, the overlapping effect itself is a spatial illusion but one which is often at odds with the other spatial system(s) in features of the total pictorial construct.

 The complexities of this kind of painterly vision are more than can be successfully indicated, at least by this writer, but his experience before the works is that of a harmonious totality of experience and perception that contains actively dynamic modulations.

 It is no surprise that Forbes is very interested in different kinds of imaging systems and principles and naturally reflects a number of them familiar in common experience.  Part of the sense of disruption, abrupt shift of terms, fragmentation and brokenness very likely comes from our daily experience of images of our own direct perception, since what we directly experience itself consists of entities employing varied, partial or multiple visual systems.  This sort to of thing which occurs when, say, one is watching a video of a film in which are shown images which are printed, drawn, painted, sculptured or generated by the nature of the film itself and then processed further by yet other means (the video and its inherent properties).  So, in Forbes’s painting one may well encounter painted presentations of images and visual systems which we associate with film, video, photography, the various photographic reproductive techniques and a wide variety of printmaking methods.  These and other elements are what Forbes then composes in the planar world of the actual surface of his canvases.  But, the complexities do not appear to end at this point.

 Forbes is possessed by an interest in various visual techniques and images not only because of the formal means which are employed and deployed by and in them but also by the expressive potentials of the images in the sense of what sort of thing is the image (or fragment of it) an image of.  This universe of the interpretive possibilities of these images (or parts of them) and their illogical combinations are central concern of Forbes’s art.  He lets us know that the ways we see give rise themselves to a shifting and dynamic universe of varying and somewhat unstable kinds of meaning, i.e. he simultaneously exploits and employs a wide variety of visual and imagistic systems.  But his point is not just the variety of those perceptual means and methods, but the natures and interpretive overtones of what the images show or seem to show.

 An obvious example is any kind of image which can be read as indicating a human figure.  Once we decide that it is an image of a human figure, we then find ourselves unvolitionally trying to make determinations about such things as age, sex, emotive state, condition of feeling, attitude towards us as viewers and, as importantly, our reciprocal attitudes rising out of our “perception” of the attitude and positioning of the beings we feel represented.  If we perceive more than one figure, the interpretive processes are greatly enlarged because in addition we find ourselves trying to assess the nature if the connections or relationships between and among the two or more figures.

 Naturally, the range of possibilities we come to entertain about our responsive attitudes and feelings toward this sort of image is exponentially expanded.  What seems to be true in the case of the human figure or figures suggested above applies as well to other kinds of images and things we recognise and identify.  (Not the same thing).  So our perceptions of all manner of objects and other things will be varied and unstable and give rise to the major part of what might be called the “emotional climate” of our perceptual experience.  This will mean, then, that an image or images which present several human figures (or indications of them however partial) seen in association with any or several kinds of images of objects makes the interpretive processes of their possible kinds of meaning or meanings extremely complicated involving an astronomical number of possibilities.  This seems to be the texture of our experience: a frantic interpretive hunt in the memory and other cognitive resources to determine the meaning or significance of it moment by moment.  This is done by the mind rifling through a large series of associations, all housed in or by different aspects of the memory and inflected by our emotional state.  We are taught, at least in the West, to sort through these associative possibilities until we settle upon the one, true exclusive and immutable meaning.  It is at this point that we reach the useful limit of this kind of logical apprehension.  Some reflection on the matter reveals that there are kinds of things that have more than one meaning and have them simultaneously.  It is not a question of alternative possibilities, that is “either or”.  The truth seems to be “either and or”.

 This kind of situation makes up a good part of the poetic reverberations of the perception itself, of the significance of things, and has some of its own formal aspects, such as the structures of puns, visual and verbal.

 This can lead easily to the realms of enigmas, puzzles and riddles, anagrams, homonyms, homophones and conundrums and all manner of cryptic and hermetic formulations.  Perhaps this is part of the Mystery of Things.

 In Forbes’s work these sorts of intricacies of perception, associative meanings and all other complications of experience touched on partly above go still further into special cognitive realms connected with art itself.  Many of Forbes’s images make specific art historical references in that we see an echo or remembrance of some other work of art.  We all have a repository of such images within our memory and very likely these are of greater interest and concern to some people than to others.  Needless to say, in spotting, feeling or vaguely sensing some such art historical imagistic connections in Forbes’s works involves yet further the different visual and interpretive potentials we have learned or developed.  Forbes appears to experience this dizzying complexity of seeing and knowing, well aware that feeling is an important kind of knowing and the essential complement of a “logical “ view of things.  Forbes’s apprehensions of and about this state of things are at the centre of the franticness of his vision and an interesting and informative part of his temperament.  In a given work we may encounter images that suggest a photographic origin or phase, electronically produced images and effects, the pixels of video systems, images that might be scenes from a play, story, film or opera presented in a seemingly disjunctive world of transparencies, overlaps, collisions of fragments of form and image.  In addition there are colors that might be considered arbitrary when applied to this or that image, and a host of other elements that make up the jumble of our consciousness.

 Forbes has a high wit and protean sense of humour, and this extends to spoken and written languages as well as visual ones.  His sense of fun (if that is what it is) is connected more with an existential sense of the absurdity of things than with humorous entertainment.  This is so because Forbes’s artistic convictions are rooted in and have developed out of a profound if often uncomfortable realization of the condition of being human.  Forbes’s visual and verbal manipulations sometimes get together, as in a series of works from the beginning of the 1980s, which utilize the designs of crossword puzzles.  They are not filled in.  Are the other pictorial elements in such paintings as Safari Park and Passing Fancy (both 1981) clues to the word puzzles?  Then too, occasionally Forbes uses a regular grid of squares, either blank as in the diagramless crossword puzzle or of alternating black and white squares as in a chessboard.  In these instances, we are again offered a wide field of possible and potential meanings, answers so to speak of the puzzles, riddle and enigmas of experience.

 One of the oldest kinds of images presenting enigmatic metaphysical features is the “picture in the picture”.  A variation can be the picture in a picture that is a picture of still another picture.  The question in these situations seems to be: “just what quotients of reality can we ascribe to the various parts and the whole of such multifaceted images?”  For example, when an artist such as Matisse paints a picture of his studio containing images of other paintings of his, just how “Matisse-y” is the Matisse in the Matisse?  Surrealist artists such as Magritte made much of this peculiar state of imagistic affairs that demonstrates the metaphysical basis of many important branches of Surrealist art.  When the picture in the picture is a picture of a picture by another artist, what aspects or kinds of reality are we to ascribe to it?  These types of conundrums appear in di Chirico’s metaphysical works along with distinctive and inconsistent scales of the imagery, an idea also made good use of by Forbes.  The blended or melded image of two or more figures or images of objects also take us into a metaphysical and Surrealist presentation of the absurdity of many kinds of experience and /or our perception of them, not to mention the variety of interpretive facets they may possess or generate.

 Forbes pushes these and other sorts of visual and contentual ambiguities and multivalent phenomena still further in various compositions in which the image(s) literally fragment.  The 1997 Catalogue of Disasters consists of nine separate canvases arranged in a square: the edges of adjacent canvases are separated by a regular gap.  Here the all over image is in fact fragmented (though not disordered because of the grid of placement.  And, within each panel are further fragments, elisions, overlappings, transparencies and the like.  This and other related works (the subject is a riff on images of Adam and Eve in the Garden) demonstrate the depth and complication of Forbes’s involvements with the questions in art of what we see, what we think we see and what we feel, think and know these things to mean.

 The stabilizing device in many of Forbes’s paintings is the use of rectangular forms, which respect, repeat, emphasize or confirm the planar and rectangular nature of the canvas itself.  This respect for the quadrangular plane not only works for Forbes but is his oath of allegiance to that Sacred (and obvious) Tenet of Modernism that Painting (well, most of it) is or Ought to be Flat or have something to do with this elementary notion.  Forbes’s play with these considerations is often wickedly ironic and even shocking.

 Forbes’s paint handling appears consistently matte in surface and without impastos.  The color is very high and often sensuously rich.   This manner of working allows the viewer to enter the worlds of the imagery easily to experiment the contradictory visual systems in it.  The discomfort resulting for the viewer recalls similar qualities in di Chirico an Klaphek as well as great Max Ernst Paintings of 1922-24.  Forbes’s work doesn’t require particular identification with this or that stylistic current: he is a pluralist in these matters because to be so is congruent with his sensibility and ability to provide in art the perception of order and meaning within the maddening diversity of the world.

 Dennis Adrian, Chicago2002