ESSAY by Dr Peter Hill in (mind)games catalogue 2005

Time Travelling with Ronald Forbes

 “I can take images made with state of the art 21st century technology and have them back in the 15th century in about ten minutes.  It is a strangely comfortable relationship I have with the computer and the hog hair brush.”

Ronald Forbes, May 2005

 Ronald Forbes is one of Scotland’s leading figurative painters.  This is a high accolade since his peers include some of the best, and most dedicated, painters in the world: Joyce Cairns, Steven Campbell, Ian Howard, Adrian Wiszniewski, Ken Currie, Peter Howson, Gwen Hardie, John Bellany…the list is long.

 Many disparate things distinguish the work of Ronnie Forbes.  There is his obsessive use of cameras and binoculars, which appear like props in a tightly scripted movie.  There is his punning use of shadows within secondary picture planes, and these become in effect silhouettes – part of an on-going system of “doubling”.  There are the great landscape vistas that he borrows from art history or visits as a tourist, such as the idealised vistas created by Claude Lorrain or the too-big-to-capture, too-wide-to-see, Grand Canyon.  Then there are the technical devices, foremost amongst these his use of collage.  Sometimes the collage is “real”, often it is a clever trompe l’oeil.  I have always been intrigued by this process and asked him more about it.  “Much of my painting uses the illusion of collage, including faux torn edges.  In these new works I have developed a kind of 3D collage where I intermix “real” figures and images.  It has taken me nearly two years to iron the wrinkles out of a process that, as I now describe it, sounds very simple.  It is, but it is very hard to do.  There is the same trial and error as you get with more haptic creative processes.  What I do is prepare images ranging from photographs of landscapes to collage elements and project these on to posed models, using a digital projector.”  Ronnie explains how he uses his family and friends as models, mostly for convenience, but I suspect there is more to it than that.  “I then re-photograph this tableau,” he says, “and after much processing, sorting out, and a myriad of difficulties I have a basic image to paint from.”   It is during this process that a lot of the “doubling” occurs – the doubling of ideas as well as shapes.  In one painting Socrates is depicted as a youth at the very point in time he is being punished for corrupting the ideas of youths.

 Yet Ronnie Forbes takes us beyond content, illusion and metaphor.  His paintings also work on another level as geometric abstractions.  In part, they remind me of early analytical cubist experiments where the picture plane breaks up in to facets.  At other times there are hints of the great Czech painter Frantisek Kupka, who was also skilled at switching between abstraction and figuration.  And at a third, almost Medieval reference point, there have been times in his long and intense career where the geometry of his construction processes become a scaffolding for his imagery, similar to the way that lead tracery in a stained glass window holds the whole together and freeze-frames the surrounding rainbow.

 The fascination he has for the physics of light and the myriad ways that images – and illusions – can be reproduced, stretches from the flickering shadows in Plato’s Cave through to the present magic of digital imaging.  Somewhere in between these two extremes is his love for 19th century technology, as if he is an intrepid explorer in a pith helmet, recording foreign lands for the very first time.  The tourists who people the later paintings look as if they have just stepped off the Orient Express, lead characters in an Agatha Christie who-dunnit.  In their hands they hold various forms of “viewing/capturing devices” such as old-fashioned binoculars or cameras.  As well as serving both as visual props and metaphors, the presence of these objects also raises philosophical questions for the artist and, by extension, us the spectators.  “Think of the millions of people who travel the world and only see it through the viewfinder of a camera or video,” he says.  “Do they intend to watch all their life perceptions on TV later?  And when is later?  Do they not realize that what they will be viewing is not the same as the original experience would have been if they had not used a camera?”

 Forbes also has a fascination with process.  Often it has to do with the way the visual world is constructed upside down at the back of the eyeball and the camera, and then is reinvented on the canvas.  At other times it becomes even more elemental and potentially dangerous.  He tells the story of how one day he turned away from his easel on a very sunny day in summer and looked towards the window where his magnifying glass sat upright in its stand and the binoculars sat on a table.  “There was a long wisp of smoke coming from my binoculars.  My instrument for seeing things made bigger had set fire to my instrument for seeing things far away.”

 All of these later works stand on the shoulders of earlier paintings which are obviously by the same hand but which are like younger siblings with different curiosities.  There is the series from the late 1970s exhibited under the general title “Roadworks” at the Project Art Centre, Dublin.  In these he used road signs as punning signifiers of themselves.  “The ostensible subject matter from this series,” he explains, “was street life from the landscape of road surfaces and the man-made graphics of road markings, to the moving traffic of pedestrians and cars.”   Around this time he started to copy images from slides by projecting them and re-photographing the image – a practice that informs these current works.

 Not surprisingly, film-making has played an important part in Ronnie Forbes’s research investigations at different points in his career, notably around twenty-five years ago and in the present.  He has also interfered in the film-making process – with the same curiosity that Gerhard Richter sometimes interferes with the colour separation process of magazine printing – allowing chance to have its place on his otherwise rigorously planned visual construction sites.  “I stopped making films about twenty years ago.  I didn’t give up.  I simply stopped. The costs were astronomical.  My current return to film work is therefore very important to me,” he says, with the excitement of a man scenting a return to unfinished business.

He describes his first venture back to this medium, quite poetically, as being “the creation of a moving painting. ” And if it sounds like a cross between a Peter Greenaway film and a Douglas Gordon slow motion video it is both more sinister and more self-contained in a landscape drained of narrative.  We are back in the realm of “Art and its Double” and this ground-breaking work might easily have escaped from Dan Cameron’s paradigm shifting survey show of that name which opened in Madrid in 1986.  “The film is about 4 minutes in length and is looped for gallery viewing.  In the exhibition it is shown on a flat-screen television alongside my paintings.  The film set is black.  Three yellow pots and three red balls sit on a table that is covered with a white cloth.  I come on dressed as a clown and perform the magic trick known as the ‘cup and ball’ trick.  I walk off screen and then come back to repeat the sequence, but this time the first performance is projected on to the set and the clown has to repeat the performance with exactly the same timing.”

By the time we get to the third sequence – where doubling becomes tripling and everything becomes fractured – we are reminded of Glenn Baxter’s great cartoon The Twins Introduce the Imposter.  Nothing is ever quite as it seems.  Trompe l’oeil gives way to sleight of hand.

 This exhibition is an astonishing testimony to a long life dedicated to visual art research, and the exciting aspect of it is that new beginnings are still very much in the offing.  I commend it to you wholeheartedly.

 Peter Hill

Melbourne 2005

 Peter Hill is a Glasgow born artist and writer and coordinator of Post Graduate Research At RMIT, Melbourne, Australia.  His Book Stargazing: memoirs of a young lighthouse keeper won a Saltire Award for best First Book of the Year in 2005.

 C Peter Hill 2005