Dual exhibit showcases regional artists
By Julia Couzens
Special to The Bee
Anxious boatmen, hostile environments, visual puns and acrobatic eyeballs are just some of the ingredients inhabiting the drawings, paintings and constructions of John Yoyogi Fortes and Julian Faulkner at Artspace 1616.
While both artists are presenting work as solo exhibitions, the pairing of work is extraordinarily sympathetic and showcases two strong regional artists working in their mid-careers. The gallery’s expansive open space is an ideal setting for Fortes and Faulkner’s large and physically assertive work. Both artists work the “high brow/low brow” territory between formal sophistication and knowing naiveté, weaving folk and outsider art mannerisms into darkly humorous socio-political narratives.
Julian Faulkner’s enormous wood and canvas paintings are first to greet the visitor to the gallery. Although Faulkner attended American River College and the San Francisco Art Institute, his work has the crude, unpolished look of work made by an unschooled outsider artist. The paintings are massive, powerful objects as much as they are pictorial illusions. Faulkner attaches carved and painted wood shapes evoking floating picture puzzle pieces to frame his paintings. Or he glues together plastic dolls, plastic water bottles, rope and other paint-slathered detritus to construct one great clunky, funky rococco-esque frame for a painting that addresses material consumption and environmental waste.
The folk-art influence is also apparent in Faulkner’s uniform attention to detail – all compositional components possess equal weight – and his awkward drawing is expressively exaggerated using graphic systems of pattern and line. But despite the flat-footed, rough-hewn quality of Faulkner’s form, his subject is often a tender depiction of humankind’s relationship to nature. “Steve Wanders Away From the Tour and Spots a Bear” (2016) shows befuddled eco-tourists adrift in boats floating in a sea of icebergs with a lone straggler, presumably Steve, standing stunned and amazed at the sight of a polar bear.
Like Popeye, John Yoyogi Fortes’ paintings keep up a running monologue of introspective mutterings, musings, and existential complaints. A battered boxer throws a punch at a ragged black thought bubble, bleating “Shroud of bad ideas,” and in a Darwinian moment, the head of a toothy monkey cracks open in front of “parasitic knowledge” crudely inscribed in the painting’s background. Fortes brews a rich stew of visual tropes drawn from comics, 1960’s funk art, graffiti, the endgame paintings of Philip Guston and the 1990’s Mission School antics of painters Barry McGee, Alicia McCarthy and Margaret Kilgallen.
Of the two artists, Fortes draws most deeply from fine art traditions. His arsenal of formal quotes is encyclopedic. Standing before the mural-sized painting, “Hell 2 Pay,” (2016) one spies references to Mission School artist Alicia McCarthy, the muddiness of early Terry Winters’ paintings and the linear zest of vintage Krazy Kat cartoons. “OOF” (2016) expands upon Squeak Carnwath’s signature use of lists. Presumably in homage, Fortes paints the names of noted modern and contemporary women artists – such as Marlene Dumas, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alice Neel, Jenny Saville – and in doing so, like Carnwath’s popular song titles, he creates a laundry list of admiration and desire.
Fortes’ smaller works present an opportunity to contemplate minor moments of great graphic charm. “Fill Bill, 1, 2, 3,” (2016) are three drawings of little cartoon heads wearing ball caps and chain-laden beards. The expressive heads are painted with a cartoonist’s economy in a cameo format over pages taken from Asian comic books and decorated with craft store glitter dots. Also in a nod to his Philippine heritage, he paints black-and-white drawings over vintage paper framed in repurposed bamboo picture frames that are hung from visible picture wires. Fortes inserts numerous signs, symbols, words and initials into his work, suggesting there is coherent meaning to be deciphered and found. Maybe. But if so, the meaning comes in fragments and stuttering fictions open to question.
Neither Faulkner nor Fortes have shown work of this scope and scale in this region for some time. With this show both artists present important, full-blown bodies of work that make a significant contribution to the landscape of contemporary painting in this region. It is an exhibition not to be missed.