Jonathan Forrest

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(This article was written by Terry Fenton to accompany the "Studio Watch" exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, 1994)

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To make his new paintings, Jonathan Forrest pours and spreads paint in an apparatus of his own devising. He has made and used apparatuses such as this for several years now, and they've taken over more and more of what traditionally has been called paint handling. In a sense his present paintings paint themselves. The setup he presently employs allows paint to flow from side to side and concentrate into a central column.

Mechanically assisted applications of paint are by no means new to painting. They go back as far at least as the dadaists, some of whom experimented with chance techniques. More recently, Morris Louis painted his great veils, unfurleds, and stripes with various pouring arrangements of his own devising. For Louis apparatus didn't demonstrate chance per se, but it did accept a degree of chance for the sake of unique paint application. In this respect it was part of a series of new applications that began with Jackson Pollock in the late '40s. Since that time, in addition to dripping and splashing, paint has been poured, soaked, rolled, sprayed, sponged, scraped, swept, mopped, and thrown.

Forrest, like Louis before him, pours and soaks. But a lot of water, with a lot of acrylic paint in it, has passed under the bridge since Louis himself poured and soaked over 30 years ago. Most abstract painters today work with water-based acrylics rather than the solvent based products that contributed, in all likelihood, to Louis's premature death. New pigments and thicker mediums have made possible painterly effects that weren't available in those days. Forrest has absorbed lessons from these materials, but their presence in his art, at least for the moment, has diminished: his new paintings are thin with very little thick.

The poured veil that Louis employed in his first series consumed most of a large picture surface: an image on its way to becoming an all-over painting. Its generous scale and bilateral symmetry produced an effect of fulsome mystery and classical calm.

Forrest's new paintings are symmetrical, too; in fact, doubly symmetrical: one side mirrors the other; top also mirrors bottom. Yet the effect of this compounded symmetry is scarcely classical and not entirely calm. The horizontal emphasis in Forrest's paintings is inward, characterized by compression and tension; the vertical is outward, involving expansion and release into watery deltas above and below. The central column focuses and concentrates the two. The effect is one of equilibrium, to be sure, but of uneasy equilibrium - classicism set against itself. The calm expansion of Louis veils has given way to contraction, implosion, distillation.

Of course there's more to Forrest's paintings than mere apparatus. Paint may well pour and settle of its own accord, but that in itself can't create good pictures. Colour, density, and proportion must be determined by the artist and his eye: the buck stops there. In the past, darks and lights and simple painterly effects confined Forrest's originality to the graphic and demonstrative. His new paintings have entered more personal territory. They're lighter, clearer, and softer and are the better for it. Colour murmurs and persuades. Dryness and demonstration have given way to unadorned sensation and ordered feeling.


© Terry Fenton, 01/94