When I invite my friends to come along to see an art exhibition, they know that they better be prepared for a challenging experience; nice and lovely - so boring - just doesn't cut it for us.
A couple of weeks ago, I took a few people to see an exhibition by LA-based artist, Kristian Burford at NYE + Brown Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. Have you ever had an unsettling dream in which you were naked in a classroom or, even better, in the office? That's exactly the type of psychological situation Kristian Burford explores in his life size installation of empty office cubicles -totally bare except for life-size sculptures of naked women. Just imagine spying on window-display mannequins in the middle of the night, not only to discover that they have secret lives, but also that these mannequin-like creatures have spirits and souls. If you see this show and don't find yourself feeling confused, vulnerable and slightly anxious, you, my friends, have a problem.
So now that I've slightly warmed you up, let me take you back to American artist Forrest Bess (1911-77), whose exhibition at the Hammer Museum I talked about a few weeks ago but still cannot get out of my mind. When I saw the exhibition for the first time, I knew very little about the artist except that he was a loner living in near poverty on an isolated patch of land -described as "the loneliest spot in Texas." His mostly small and medium sized abstract paintings -quirky, colorful and speaking in tongues -intrigued me from the get go.
But only after I got a hold of the exhibition catalog did I learn about all the pain and craziness that tortured Forrest Bess throughout his life. Yes, tortured, but in a remarkable way it also informed and fueled his art. He started to draw and paint while he was still a boy, but his family discouraged his interest in art so as a result, he went to college to study architecture, but soon dropped out. During WWII Bess served in the Army, where he was beaten with a lead pipe when, after a few drinks, he admitted to a fellow soldier that he was gay. That was about the time that he had his first mental breakdown and started to see a psychiatrist who "gave him his first insight into the visions that he experienced in a half-sleeping state."
These visions are exactly what he captured in his paintings, "never add-[ing] or subtract-[ing] from the visions that appeared to him." "Bess believed that the symbols in his paintings were clues to ancient truths." According to his own theories, hermaphroditism is the ultimate key to achieving divine unity. And that is what Forrest Bess persistently and convincingly documented in his art.
At the end of the catalog, you find a key of symbols that Bess used in his paintings. And that's when the hair on the back of your neck will probably stand up. Many of the abstract shapes and intense colors that caught your eye in his powerful paintings are identified in the catalog as, for example: "penis, snake" or "urethra with bulbous section." A symbol looking like a sun is actually identified as "golden star, anus." And what looks like a simple cross, is labeled "death - undilated bulbocavernous urethra."
When you learn that Bess, in pursuing the ultimate harmony of the Male and the Female, performed a surgery on himself by cutting a hole on the underside of his penis, you will find yourself thoroughly shaken and in need of a stiff drink or two. If you want my two cents: with all this information, go back to see this exhibition again and find out how all these revelations about Forrest Bess' psyche will color your perception of his so seemingly innocent paintings.
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible at the Hammer Museum, September 29, 2013 - January 5, 2014
Kristian Burford: Audition at NYE + Brown, September 28, 2013 - November 2, 2013
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.