Jonathan Forrest

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The following article was written by Robert Christie for the catalogue for Jonathan Forrest Recent Paintings, Swift Current National Exhibition Centre, and the Moose Jaw Art Museum, 1990. 


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Studio Interior, 1989


The making of art requires some degree of risk. The making of good art requires high risk. But as it is with all endeavors, the higher the risk, the greater the probability of failure. It is the likelihood of this possibility that keeps many artists from fully realizing their potential.

It is part of human nature to be afraid of the unknown. We find security in the past and in what has proven to be successful. We come to rely on habits and comfort and we learn by example. So to break out, to be a non-conformist and to pursue a track which neither the individual nor his/her peers is familiar, usually requires considerable courage and daring. Peer acceptance and critical acclaim are often very slow in coming simply because the viewers of art also tend to rely on the security of the past or the fashionable avenues of the present.

So the development of good art usually has to go against the grain. For the artist, uncertainty becomes the norm and the decisions never come easy. They are complicated, inter-dependent, often misleading and usually misunderstood or over-looked at the time when they are made. To do or not to do is the artist’s dilemma, and unfortunately, so many succumb to the latter decision.  


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"spanish base"

Jonathan Forrest goes against the grain. He makes good art. And his work is fraught with risk. To begin with, he works within a tradition of painting that seems to have slipped from favor. It is a tradition that believes that the artist should be responsive to his/her medium and that beauty and substance can still be found within the interplay of the basic elements and principles of art. A tradition that does not confuse "meaning" with associative subject matter, issue or narration, but instead attempts to become "meaningful" in and about itself. In other words, it is a tradition in art that does not depend on anything external. The painting is about itself and if it doesn’t succeed, it has no camouflage to hide behind and no smoke screen that allows for confusion. Words do little for this kind of painting. There are no substitutes or equivalents. The pictures are there simply to be looked at and enjoyed in the same sense that good music allows us to sit back and listen.

In a more direct sense, his risk-taking begins with his painting process. While it may seem somewhat unconventional to many viewers, it is natural to Jonathan and it is to his credit that he doesn’t resist a personal inclination. The tactility of the paint is important to him. He obviously likes both the actual and the visual "feel" of paint and he doesn’t work comfortably with tools that impede direct application. At a very early stage in his career he realized that the best way for him to put down paint was by hand. Brushes were relegated to a mixing and stirring role. As Jonathan has moved through various painting series, his processes have also changed but only to refine his intuitive rapport with his paint.

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"grey column"

Never one to stand back and ponder his paintings, he is, nevertheless, constantly questioning, comparing, looking and listening. Most importantly, he is constantly working and the changes that we see in his paintings have come about primarily because of his continual involvement. His early dark paintings (around 1984) not only presented his interest in a manipulated surface, but with hindsight we can see them as the instigators of an "all-over" painting attack. Repetitive, stalagmite-like protrusions in these works eventually gave way to a more varied relationship of thick and thin elements and a much wider range of colour usage. Although uncertain about his direction at this stage, Jonathan’s inherent need to continually paint and his acceptance of the medium as a guide eventually paid off. Always searching for more direct ways to apply the paint and consistent with his interest in surfaces, he began altering his canvas support to produce ridges. By tilting his support, he could literally pour the paint down the canvas valleys which in turn controlled its directional flow. Alternating thick and thin, glossy and matte rivers of acrylic paint played off against the elevations of the canvas.

Concurrent with this development was a series of small sculptures. His tilted painting supports suggested slanted plywood constructions and Jonathan capitalized on them, first through a series of stepped ledges and then through more simplified, triangular assemblages. In these, the distinction between what was painting and what was sculpture became minimal. The wooden constructions were essentially three-dimensional holders for cascading paint flows and the traditional concept of what separates painting from sculpture was blurred.

This exhibition includes works exclusively from 1989. They are all acrylic on canvas and they amply demonstrate a mature period in Jonathan Forrest’s search and discovery approach to making art. The overtly thick elements have been restrained and replaced by a more eloquent flow of washed colour. What was previously blatant has been superseded by the more subtle and sublime handling of paint and the pictures in general present a maturity in both concept and process that belies his age. With a cursory view only, the obvious consistency of a vertical striped format may overpower the viewer’s ability to see the individuality present in each of these paintings. Nevertheless, within this series, the earliest painting coming in June and the latest in December of 1989, we witness a progression of reactions on Jonathan’s part. The early pieces have a more sculptural content. The vertical bars rest on a bottom ledge, a throw-back to the works of a few years ago, and the column-like figures separate from the illusionary space retained by the raw canvas grounds. The colours are distinct and the paint handling varied. As we move through the series, the ledge rises. The trough used by Jonathan to catch the run-off begins to play a more primary role. Instead of being a practical device, it becomes a tool and the effects that it creates are more fully integrated with the remainder of the painting. In the latest works, the blooming of the paint serves to both soften the colours and to unite figure with ground.

Jonathan Forrest doesn’t rely on the success of his early works. Procedures and processes that had earlier led to very good paintings are supplanted by new procedures and new concepts. Unlike so many others, he is not afraid to grow. I congratulate Jonathan on his work and David Humphries, Director of the Swift Current National Exhibition Centre, for presenting it.


© Robert Christie

January, 1990