Journal Article by Dr Carol Gow in Cenrastus, 1990


Ronald Forbes’ memories of his recent visit to Tokyo are a strange mixture of dignified decorum and Dionysian freedom. Invited to lecture on Contemporary Scottish Art he addressed his audience in highly formal surroundings through a translator. After the banquet which followed, he found himself urged to address a section of the same audience, this time with his own rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ aided by video interactive machine, complete with quadraphonic speakers and echo mike.

The bizarre collocation delights him perhaps because, as in his paintings, it brings together disparate images which somehow combine into a new reality.

Ronald Forbes

‘Conversation Piece’

Carol Gow

Ronald Forbes calls himself a ‘synthetic imagist’:

‘I’m a bringer together of various components of ideas which I contrive to build together. It’s one of the reasons I was interested  in making films – it’s a gathering together of bits that you either create yourself or you find and you put them together and in a new order which you feel has some kind of pertinent reality.’

 Ronald Forbes is a painter, film -maker and teacher. A graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, he has won numerous prizes and awards for his paintings including the RSA Guthrie A ward in 1979, as well as awards for filmmaking.  In recent years he has become a well known figure in the field of Public Art, establishing and subsequently directing the unique Masters Degree course in Public Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. The course has won an enviable international reputation. Forbes is also on the board of the Dundee Public Art Programme. Dundee, long known as Scotland’s fourth city, now leads the way in public art and the city itself is testament to the enthusiasm for art in the community, and an example to other towns. Forbes was the initiating force behind the enormously successful ‘Dundee Welcomes Japan Festival’ in 1988. His commitment to the community is impressive, yet he remains essentially a gallery artist. I spoke to him as he prepared for his twelfth solo exhibition of new paintings, drawings and prints.

 In the past, many of his paintings have combined to form a series such as ‘Carnival’, ‘Crucifixion’ and ‘Scarecrow’, but he has never elected a theme; a theme tends to appear ‘after the event’ and he was wary of responding to my question about a unifying theme for the current exhibition while he was still in the process of painting:

 ‘At the moment I’m working with objects and images which evoke place. Now I think eventually that none of the paintings will have any of the descriptive details I’m struggling with at the moment … but I hope eventually to have the reality of place, a certain kind of mood, so that if there is a theme it’s to do with a sense of place. I don’t know if it’s any different from anything I’ve done before although there’s always the feeling of new discovery. I think I’m trying to express the same things and looking at the same interests in a much more personal way.’

 In one of his films, ‘Two Painters’, Forbes made the comment that he is interested in the way we see things. His paintings foreground the process of perception, and are often built up from a series of fragments and collage forms. They centre on human activity, with the human figure represented by the corps morcele of ‘Woman With Still Life’ (acrylic on canvas1982), or the more recent images of doll figures in ‘The View From Dundee’ (oil on canvas 1989). Shifts in an artist’s work can often be difficult to determine precisely. What seems like a small development can in retrospect mark a watershed. In Forbes’ current work, earlier images still preoccupy; food, television, machinery. There is a rhythm and flow to his work and to his exploration of metaphor that makes his paintings a process of discovery, the learning of a new grammar, for artist and viewer. Yet it is possible to detect a shift connected with his sense of a more personal imagery.

 He now paints in a fast-drying version of oil paint. The switch from acrylic to oils four years ago was a conscious decision and yet the medium itself also changed his work. He had grown disenchanted with acrylic paint and the spray-gun because of the disparity between the time he spent masking up a painting and the time using acrylic:

 ‘I’ve always been slightly against the ‘painting as pleasure’ kind of thing- I’ve always felt it should be more to do with the idea rather than hand skills- but this got to a ludicrous level of being totally out of touch with the medium I was using.’

 Oil paint allowed him to describe the new images he wanted to use in his work to create the illusion of three-dimensional figure forms.  The collage figure forms of earlier work in acrylic have evolved through images which use the lay figure to images of dolls. The doll images contain the curious doubleness of representing more closely the male and female form, yet at the same time denying individuality in their association with mass production and in their stereotyped male and femaleness.  Yet that doubleness still allows a more personal statement to be made. If earlier paintings seem to contain within them a silence, a lacuna, which challenges the viewer, Forbes’ recent work suggests a relaxation of a formal reticence and a new openness. In ‘The View From Dundee’ (and the definitive pronoun is important, anchoring the painting in a specific time and specific place and to the specific response of the artist) the landscape the figure substitutes inhabit is a personal one, no longer the sterile rooms and furniture of earlier work. If domestic interiors have always been a preoccupation with him, he is not now parodying Dutch painting by using images of stereotyped modern kitchens but is exploring in new work images from his parents’ farm kitchen, his own kitchen, ‘the detail of the reality of my day-to-day existence.’ Images now are connected with self, with family, with local habitation.

 Yet those images are accessible to the viewer because they are not random images but part of a context, a language, developed and worked through in a number of paintings. In ‘The View from Dundee’, Forbes uses the developed image of a child’s toy, a rainbow stacking tower, to explore ideas of optimism. In the personal he seeks the universal.

 The shift from a public to a personal imagery connects with the shift from acrylic to oil paint to suggest a point of departure in his work. The decision to paint in oils was mixed up with strange emotions for Ronald Forbes:

 ‘I stopped using oil paint when I was a second-year student in Edinburgh and by doing so was part of a group that was seen as being terribly avant garde. Acrylics were just ,coming in. In fact, the year behind us were banned from using them, and the statement was made. “This is still an oil painting college”.’

 That kind of loyalty did not inhibit Forbes because his concern was for the idea, not the medium, but he admits to experiencing an emotional twinge at the idea of rerurning to oils:

 ‘Here I was twenty years later reverting to oil painting – although perhaps “reverting” isn’t the right word because I suddenly realised I hadn’t really had any grounding in it.’

 There were problems. Forbes’ long experience with a fast-drying medium had allowed him to pursue ideas quickly. Using oils, the necessary concentration on one small area distracted him from the whole. He now uses a version of oil paint that dries fast so it offers to combine the speed he was accustomed to with the wet-on-wet properties of oil:

 ‘The next day I start on a dry base but I can keep it wet all day so I can do most of the things that I could with acrylic such as taping up, making a hard edge, through to revising. I think painting is all about revising.’

 Scottish painters have had along engagement with oil paint, from the traditional Scottish landscape to contemporary work which foregrounds the medium itself. Allen Jones voices a popular credo when he argues for the need for painting to reconcile the illusion created on the surface with the fact of the paint itself. Forbes’ work has never been concerned with this kind of reconciliation. Indeed, he has played with denial of the painted surface, simulating the white ragged edges of torn paper in his collage effects:

 ‘I’ve always used paint in a fairly bland way – the Scottish tradition is one of thick, crunchy, wonderful paint where one of the joys is paint as object and I often do admire this. But I’ve never been part of it. What really interests me is that illusion of what is real – is it the surface of the canvas or is it the space you create within it and that interplay.’

 There are characteristic images in Forbes’ work. In ‘Conversation Piece’ (oil on canvas 1988) and ‘Outside the Garden’ (oil on canvas 1988) figure forms are anchored by wonderfully bizarre shoes whose distinctive ‘shoeness’ has an almost caricarural quality. Sometimes a figure form will seem enclosed in a glass case as in ‘Safari Park’ (acrylic on canvas 1981) or in ‘Outside The Garden’.  Often the figure form will be without a hand. ‘Outside The Garden’ offers images of hands and arms which suggest caring, loving, touching. The large caressing hand in the centre of the picture in in turn held in the crook of an arm whose hand is relaxed, almost casual.  Another outstretched hand offers a blossom. Yet the supporting arm is strapped to the figure, offering a temporary, vulnerable quality, and the shirt-sleeved arm is without a hand, its absence overpoweringly significant here.

 The glass case which frames this representation is a figure which teases the eye. Optical illusions have always been important and still fascinate Forbes:

 ‘I come back to these very simple optical illusions time and time again . It’s not a solution for how to make a painting interesting –  “I’II throw in an optical illusion” – it’s a drive. It’s something that emerges quite naturally.’

 Many of his paintings use the figure of a tailor’s dummy, a ‘waistform’ figure stuck on a pole and anchored firmly on a metal base. The actual figure was one he originally found in a studio in Dundee which had formerly been a sweatshop. It now inhabits his own studio. Another important image is the wooden clothes frame known as the ‘Valet’s Friend’:

 ‘ I now recognise from various key images in my painting I do like figure substitutes and these can often be the things you hang clothes on or make clothes around. ‘ The use of figure substitutes like these, and of images which come together in a metaphorical relationship, insists on representation rather than re-presentation and in many ways denies the frame that separates painting from viewer as something finished and complete in itself, opening up instead a sense of relationship. Indeed, these large paintings involve the viewer not in the passive process of looking at an object but in an active process of confrontation. It is this volatile relationship Forbes seeks and he is aware of a strong sense of theatre in his work:

 ‘Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that a lot of these figure substitutes face outwards as if they were addressing an audience. I feel very strongly that painting for me is a kind of theatre – not the activity of it but the result.  The painting stands there and addresses an audience. The audience can react in various ways of course.’

 Ronald Forbes sees himself as part of that audience:

 ‘I don’t see myself as different from the audience. I’m not in charge of it – I’m a customer as well.’

 Forbes insistence on being a viewer is liberating in terms of making art but he acknowledges the fine balance that needs to be achieved between conscious control and the mysterious area which allows the artist to become a discoverer of his own meanings:

 ‘One of the difficulties of wrestling with the idea of meaning is that it’s the most inhibiting thing in terms of making art. Yet you feel what you do should have some meaning. The bits you struggle hardest with to be meaningful are probably the bits that disappear. However if you’ve got the right components together it eventually emerges as something which genuinely has some kind of meaning – not just in formal terms, but in the way all those components add together to make some kind of poetic statement. I don’t just take a random series of images – they are hard work.’

 Forbes’ use of layers of images, of marks in the painting, his interest in metaphors of making and construction, insist on the hard work.  The painting is something produced by the artist, and by foregrounding process, a strong sense of vitality emerges in Forbes’ work: the finished painting is released from the status of object and becomes process, the evidence of an idea. The viewer as well as the painter is involved in the work.

 ‘Conversation Piece’ offers a three-dimensional figure represented by a jacket hung on a wooden frame, set on solid, reassuring shoes. The arms flail a kind of semaphore message. The glove suggests a hand inside, the head is represented by a camera lens.  Around the figure are two-dimensional representations of eyes, glasses, lips, ears, images of communication.  The painting brings together many key images and Ronald Forbes described the process:

 ‘This didn’t happen as one painting idea; it occurred through a number of paintings and drawings. I decided I would have this figure in a quasi landscape only in that I had space around it, but I didn’t want trees, flowers, grass, or anything like that. What I have used is human flesh – a close up of downy, hairy, porey skin. The personal landscape. The apparently impersonal human being concocted out of artefacts, inhabiting a landscape which is perhaps the most personal thing we’ve got – our skin.’

 Ronald Forbes’ work engages on many levels; structure, colour, imagery. These paintings satisfy and tease, reveal and conceal, invite and deny, drawing the viewer into an ever more complex relationship. The work done on a conscious level by the artist in his studio can be explained but the full meaning of a work resides in the work itself, in its relationship to other work, and in performance, when the work addresses its audience. For Ronald Forbes, exhibiting offers a sense of theatre, a ‘punctuation in life’, a ‘shock of view’, an opportunity for artist to become viewer. He plans twenty-four main pieces for the exhibition of his current works which opens at the Seagate Gallery, Dundee, in April before touring Scotland.


A short story by Carol Gow, currently lecturing at the Angus College of Further Education, appears on page 41 of this issue.