Jonathan Forrest

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The following article was written by Helen Marzolf, The Dunlop Art Gallery, for the brochure for the exhibition Jonathan Forrest: Recent Paintings. 

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Looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax makes a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar.

Jeanette Winterson 1


Jonathan Forrest’s recent abstract paintings depart radically from his previous work. The new ones are soft, luminous, ethereal, and lyrical at first glance; fugitive, troubling and weird after you’ve spent time thinking about them. They remind me of the work of modernist painters such Jack Bush, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock, yet they resist being corralled by historical abstraction. They seem contemporary and alive at a time when painting, particularly abstract painting, has been pronounced dead for years. The historical allusions which frame Forrest’s recent project amplify something disquietingly non-fixed about his work.

For more than a decade, Forrest has persistently made very unfashionable abstract paintings. Whether his work is pegged as modernist or not is really not an issue for him. He sees his work as another development or permutation of modernism.2   In addition to the artists mentioned above, regional colleagues, including Bob Christie and William Perehudoff, all influenced by international modernism of the 1950s and 1960s, were his mentors. In Saskatchewan, the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshop (1956 to 1995) along with the activities instigated by guest artists and critics, were the mechanism for the modernist influence.3 Now another wave of artists (Marie Lannoo, Reginald Hamilton, Janet Werner, John Noestheden, Forrest and others) are re-inventing abstraction, and related forms, framing the idiom in a contemporary culture constantly re-shaped by technologies of representation and communication.4

Non-objective painting resonated in Saskatchewan, in a lively way, for a long while. I see Jonathan Forrest’s modernist inheritance as an operative element in and around his paintings. In my imagination, it re-surfaces as persistent ideological pentimenti, Or, perhaps I should say, painterly ghosts, which manifest themselves in the appearance of the paintings, the process of their construction, and in how they are interpreted.

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Let’s start with appearances. This series is colourful and diffuse, in contrast to Forrest’s earlier, darkly pigmented paintings which were formally resolved by forceful, simple design elements. These were the outcome of process: the gravitational pull of the paint flowing through a single canvas trough, or the steaks left from pulling pigment across paper.5  New Day retains a similar process-conscious structure and self-referentiality. In contrast, when I look at Orbit or lattice, I sense, rather than see, a barely perceptible structure – an idea starting to coalesce, suspended a nanosecond before language and design solidify it. The latest works, Glide, Broadcast and Billow appear to be indeterminate, inchoate, almost undesigned. They simply mark, or occupy, a territory of ambiguity. Instead of delivering order and clarity, Forrest uses his considerable skill to offer quizzical inconclusiveness. How are we, as viewers, to make sense of such deliberately indefinitive data? And more importantly, why bother?

Forrest offers nothing with which to map theoretical, historical, or conceptual allusions. As viewers, we are left with the pleasure (or problem depending on your perspective) of constructing meaning by responding to the corporeal presence of the paintings, as that meaning is re-shaped by the contemporary critical, theoretical and socio-political contexts within which each of us operates, and which we bring to interpretation. Forrest has an insouciant confidence in the viewer’s autonomy and ability to read his paintings.

Homi K. Bhabha’s precisely drawn analysis of the relationship between author and interpreter is applicable to work such as Forrests:

It is finally, the non-disclosure of the author as a general or universal condition of meaning, being or seeing that makes artistic agency what it is: an interpretational ethics and an interventionist aesthetics that is at once liminal and luminous…Artistic activity, whether creative or critical, poses the problems that narratives and figurations, signs and scenarios, both may and may not have an intention (no author), and, at the same time, raise an urgent need to disclose agency…

Without epiphany or "authority" there emerges, in the place of origin or singular presence, the double-bind of the subject: the birth of the creator or the spectator who cannot transcend the process of artwork but is placed in the in-between, in the midst of his or her own production as an agent, in the very interstices of intention and interpretation. For that is the law of the human position: the spectator or interpreter has to live with, and within, the knowledge that "someone began it" – the story, the web of human relationships, the inter-est, the painting, the installation, the verse, the critique – while acknowledging the fact that nobody is its author. 6

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The interpretation of abstract painting demands much of the reader or viewer. Rather than force a singular conclusion, or illustrate a theory, Forrest’s project re-activates a space for playful (I use the word ‘playful’ in a considered sense, not to diminish the work) contemplation – space that invites the translations, metaphors, reinventions and re-inscriptions which characterize the slipperiness of contemporary culture. The significance of Forrest’s work lies precisely in its apparent randomness and inconclusiveness. In a milieu of sound bites, statistics, e-mail, and unrelenting literal consumerist media, abstract painting, undead, continues to exert a subtle and potent power.


© Helen Marzolf



  1. Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects, Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontary(Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 1995), p.4.
  2. Letter from Jonathan Forrest to the author, March 1997.
  3. For an authoritative analysis of modernism in Saskatchewan, see John O'Brian, The Flat Side of the Landscape: The Emma Lake Artists' Workshops (Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery, 1989).
  4. Jessica Bradley, Perspective 96: Cora Cluett, Eric Glavin, Angela Leach, Steven Shearer (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario), pp.7-15.
  5. See Robert Christie, Jonathan Forrest: Recent Work (Swift Current National Exhibition Centre, 1990) and D. Humphries, Jonathan Forrest, Paper Works 1989 - 1993 (Swift Current National Exhibition Centre, 1994).
  6. Homi K. Bhabha in "Aura and Agora: on Negotiating Rapture and Speaking Between" in Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives by Richard Francis et al (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996), p.15.