[Originally published in Art and Culture magazine]
The Enigmatic and Curiously Fascinating Work of Forrest Bess
“The cranium is a space traveler’s helmet.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin
Forrest Bess (1911 – 1977) lived about seventy miles south of Houston on a sliver of scruffy land where he eked out a living by fishing and trawling for shrimp. Letters he sent to friends were regularly punctuated by pleas for cash. He was hungry and hunkered down in a flipped-over barge covered with tar and shells. While he was destitute, the art he produced is rich. In fact, it’s been called “Texas’s best.” Bess’s work ranges from representational woodcuts to abstract pieces that lure us into areas deep and dark as compost. The latter are hauntingly thick, murky images that insinuate tribal legend and a coagulated elixir of flesh and psychological symbols. They’re simultaneously crudely rendered yet sufficiently eloquent to end up in Houston’s prestigious Menil Collection as well as the home of the legendary arbiter of taste, Stanley Marcus. The French adore him — but Texans have been reticent to give him his fair due. Consequently, Kirk Hopper Fine Art should be commended for putting together one of the more interesting and important shows Dallas has seen in years.
One way to imagine Bess paintings is to think of them as contemporary Lascaux cave drawings. Instead of bison, he shows us unfiltered images that defy language. They can’t be trapped. He gives us ideograms that are primitive and mysterious and nearly as deeply charged as a Rothko. It’s clear that they were dredged from dreams and obsessions. Bess explains his work: “I close my eyes and paint what I see on the insides of my eyelids.” His paintings are obscure and fraught with a baffling and indecipherable pre-language. And the cave? It’s the inside of his haunted noggin, his “space traveler’s helmet.” He was fascinated with hermaphroditism and the secrets of eternal life. He mutilated his genitalia and ended up in a mental institution — and we’re left to wonder if his behavior was mere pathology or an obscure gift of a brilliant mind extraordinarily adept at traversing boundaries and inhibitions.
In the end, his personal life offers only increasingly baffling vectors into his work. To equate his intermittent schizophrenic episodes with his intriguing art is to shortchange it. Why not visit Rusk and Terrell State Hospitals in search of genius? The odds of finding it there are slim to zero. Consequently, what’s far more important are the contours and color of works like “Tree of Life.” The piece comes across as a hierophantic emblem of depth and rupture. Bess enjoys making the hidden manifest and he explicitly explained that this particular piece could be read in two ways. When it’s upright, in the shape of a trident, he dubbed it “Tree of Life.” On its side, it became “Sign of the Hermaphrodite.” His ability to posit things in multiple ways can be construed as shamanic. He brought things up from the depths and offered them to the skies. He traveled a vertical path and left signposts at every juncture. Bess was transfixed by libinal symbols and gave societal norms little consideration. As another example, he also thought that a crest shape held the key to alchemical quests for eternal life.
Bess’s theories aren’t party talk for PTA gatherings but it certainly makes for interesting art. His work is infinitely more raw than the images rendered in Jung’s “Red Book” and that’s terrific. Great even. Kirk Hopper has brought some spirited and deep work to a city widely recognized for being over-run by coiffed blondes in Escalades. Give the man credit. It’s certainly due.