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Pursuing Paint 

from the Mendel Art Gallery"Folio" magazine, Winter 2000/1

by Sky Glabush

Jonathan Forrest is the golden boy. If Emma Lake and magisterial visits by the art world's once elite, like Clement Greenburg, have left a legacy, it must surely be preserved in the sustained practice of William Perehudoff, Robert Christie, Douglas Bentham, and passed on to Jonathan Forrest. Coming in to the art world just as the lustre of modernism was diminishing, Forrest caught the tail end of the energy and vitality that had so affected the Saskatoon artist community throughout the sixties and seventies. Nevertheless, his own creative vision has been sharply tuned by the process-driven expressionistic capacity of art as defined by Greenburg and the like. Forrest has managed to work within the rather tight protocols of modernist abstraction and, like Janet Werner, has pushed his painting into those areas that test the limits of the expressiveness of paint.

Since 1989 Forrest has been steadily exhibiting in museums and private galleries throughout western Canada. For over ten years he has pursued, with unflinching dedication, a methodology of process and accident-pouring it on, getting dirty, letting the paint do the talking. It is his ability to get out of the way, to let the organic movement of applying the materials determine the outcome that is so striking in his work (this is, by the way, much harder than it sounds). Thus, his paintings take on the same certainty and directness one might find gazing at the complicated patterns in a rock face, the weathered ambiguity of an old barn wall, or the deep umber of dirt. Moving freely from soft, ethereal abstraction where swaths of pale colours float over sepia-stains, to harder and darker paintings that look like sheets of solid granite or slate, Forrest creates lyrical, poetic paintings.

His newest work, like every new series, is both a continuum and a departure. These new paintings side step everything that I tend to think of as painting and yet manage to strike a deeply resonant, painterly chord. Doing what we are taught not to do, Forrest pours it on until the painting almost literally turns to mud. But rather than signalling that point of no return, that stasis where the painting is forever caught in a murky limbo, Forrest pushes the paint until the grays, browns, blues, and reds simply hum, vibrating with the intensity of the process, resolutely alive in their sombre, minimal monochrome. Like Janet Werner, Forrest has been asking the same question for years, and in his recent work he demonstrates that-while avoiding the pedantry and tackiness of the illustrated, graphic, stylishness of so much representational work-Forrest creates an unalloyed, painterly object, self-referential, organic, and complete. I spoke with Jonathan at his home.

SG It seems to me that one of the most important elements to you in art is your ability to remove yourself from the process, where the marks and occurrences in the painting are a result of the materials themselves rather than some kind of direct logic and will.

JF Well, yes it is. At a certain point I started making troughs down the centre of my paintings, poured paint down through the sides and it collected in the centre which created a kind of mark-making, while the pigments collected in this line and created an accidental structure without my controlling it. It was like creating conditions for the accident to occur.

SG Why do you think that accidental, uncontrolled method of working is so important to you?

JF That I can't answer, Sky. (Laughter). But actually that is the key to my aesthetic. I like paint on the floor, spillage, there's just something really appealing about that. It goes back to that old argument that your palette is better than your painting. It's almost cliché, but the looseness and unplanned randomness of your palette has a kind of honesty to it that is freed from cerebral inclination. Whereas the actual paintings you do are often times forced, rather than letting the painting emerge without any sort of preconceived idea. That basic concept has been the core of most of my work. 

SG Do you think it has something to do with authenticity and honesty, that the paintings themselves become somehow real, actual events that occur in our experience rather than the recreation of an event through your imagination? Do paintings themselves become as real as reality; not a depiction of experience, but experience themselves?

JF It's the difference between a natural gesture and an illustration of the gesture. I think that is a part of the appeal. And also I think it's just natural inclinations. There are different painters, painters that have an interest in colour, an interest in structure, an interest in a more sloppy, mucking around kind of approach. I wouldn't really put any of those things above any other. It's how each particular artist taps in and genuinely connects.

SG You mentioned something before in a conversation we had about Valasquez. Basically we talked about this idea of taking your work, whatever you do, and measuring against these old master paintings and trying to define whether or not you were successful. And your point was that you have to judge your own work based on the innovations, advances, and trajectories of your own painting. Success is defined by how real or honest or connected you are when you enter the studio. I found that to be a really liberating way of looking at things.

JF Outside of the studio you might want to see how you measure up to everybody else, but I don't think it helps you in the studio.

SG That brings me to something that Robert Christie said about your work. He stated that your work was heavily dependent on risk. 

JF Well, it's always in flux. Innovation is risk; you want to break away from what you're doing and discover new things. But you also want to build on what you have discovered. So it's an ever-changing development of risk and then getting comfortable with what you have discovered. Risk is a funny word because it's not like a sort of heroic life risk, it's just paint. It's about being interested. You get bored if you do the same thing. Out of your own interest and in order to enjoy yourself, you try to come up with things and some things click and you go with it. But there is a basic personality, your painting personality, that for whatever reason is fixed; there are just these natural inclinations. So the changes I've made through different series of paintings have usually come about through trying to get closer to the essence of what I feel painting is about. So usually a series has gone stagnant and I think that I have to shake things up and get back to the basic handling of materials. But things can seem like changes but when you look back over ten or fifteen years of work, they're all coming at the same thing- but from different angles.

SG A number of years ago I asked you, rather naivély, what your work was about. I think I said, "Is your work about colour theory?" And you said, "No, it's about colour feel." I thought that was a really interesting response because so much of what defines contemporary art is constructed out of theory and criticism. There doesn't seem to have been, in the last while, much room in contemporary art for this idea of expressing feeling, of expressing one's response to the world through simple, honest approaches that you have taken in your work. Is this idea of "colour feel," this intuitive reaction to the world and to your own art, something that continues to move you?

JF I think that's true. There is no theory behind what I do. I'm coming out of a certain history of painting, modernist painting. But in the studio it's not based on any predetermined thought-out principle. It's based more on just learning, internalising whatever I may have studied in the past, being aware of these things but internalising them into different ways of putting the paint down. Hopefully, at some point, it manifests in a non-cerebral, intuitive way of doing things. My new paintings are particularly removed from any theory. They're puzzling to me. 

SG Many contemporary critics have basically written off this more intuitive, process-based, somewhat formalist approach, in favour of a type of art that is driven by external forces like identity, politics, technology. How do you feel about that?

JF A long time ago I stopped trying to justify my paintings and not just externally, but even when going into the studio I try to suspend judgement as a way to free up the process. I'm not going to criticise every mark I put down, every colour. I go in with a positive attitude that whatever I do may work. The paintings should speak for themselves, and I don't think I can really convince anybody of their merit.

Getting back to your question, I think that if we look back through the early eighties until recently, it's been a time when abstraction has been at its most unpopular. But within the painting community, abstract painters, it's also been a time of stagnation. I think there are a number of painters now interested in abstraction that are looking at ways to emerge out of that period without denying history and what you're interested in. How do you take it to the next stage, break out of the known, accepted forms of expression without denying where you come from? Looking back over the last twenty years, a lot of abstraction, specifically lyrical abstraction, just doesn't hold up. But it's a rich time now. I think we're poised on a threshold of a breakthrough, a new way of looking at abstract painting. It reminds me of certain other times in history that have been ripe for invention.

Sky Glabush is a former Saskatoon artist and writer now living in Amsterdam.

© Sky Glabush