The Forrest Bess Variations
In the 1950s, before the term “outsider artist” became a commercial designation, the self-taught painter and Texas fisherman Forrest Bess won brief acclaim for his compact, abstract compositions in handmade frames. They were exhibited in New York by prominent art dealer Betty Parsons, who saw in their cryptic symbolism Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious then in psychoanalytic vogue. In fact, the runic forms in Bess’s paintings represent facets of the artist’s quest to transform himself, through self-surgery, into a “hermaphrodite.” They are the alphabet for an erotic language beyond the gender binary.
The 17 canvases in Richard Hawkins’s exhibition “The Forrest Bess Variations” riff on specific works by the eponymous artist. Hawkins has long explored the psychology of sexual outcasts in his paintings, which gleefully muck up the line between figuration and abstraction. (Perhaps that’s why Bess so appealed to him.) He helps us decode each abstraction with a painted key (Legend, 2022): gray paint could mean water or sperm; blue, impotence and rigidity; yellow, piss, gold or sulfur. Notably, Hawkins has changed most of Bess’s colors, and with them, the meaning of his original referents. Bess’s The Penetrator (1967), for instance, is transformed here from an image of youthful vigor and ecstatic release to a celebration of the body’s integration with the divine — a slight difference that teases out both interpretations. Dominion (2022), meanwhile, takes Bess’s The Symbol of Sleep (1951) and replaces its field of black sheep with impasto strokes resembling television static, like a lullaby for our screen-addicted times.
Most notably, Hawkins has inscribed each painting with the name “Dionysius,” carved into the wet surface with a sharp tool. “I may be the Devil or I may be Dionysius,” Bess once wrote, adding an extra “i” to the name of the Greek god of ecstasy. Bess, Hawkins notes in the press release, may also have been referring to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a 6th-century Christian mystic referenced several times by Jung. Either way, Hawkins’s invitation to reconsider Bess comes at a time when the discourse around gender fluidity has paradoxically enforced newer, and often stricter, identity labels. Art historical classifications, too, seem as rigid as ever. Under these circumstances, artists might fare better on the outside. —Evan Moffitt
Richard Hawkins, The Coming Together, 2022. Oil on canvas on board and artist’s frame 35 1/8 X 41 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo: Zeshan Ahmed