Hey Wait A Minute: Narrative & Form & Forrest Bess

Bess Drawings
Drawings, 1957


Sometime last spring I discovered that the BAM/PFA was going to be hosting a retrospective on the work of Forrest Bess. I was not familiar with Bess at the time, but was intrigued both by what I saw and read in the press release.

I’ve struggled with finding the correct word to describe Bess’ work, and have only just now realized that this is probably because of the extent to which it is mediated by the language through which I came to be introduced to it. I am just as intrigued by the way in which Bess’ story is narrativized- in both BAM/PFA’s press release and his Wikipedia page, among others- as I am in his work. His story is so bizarre that it can’t help but evince striking paradoxes and contradictions, especially in the repetition of its retelling.

But all of this is fitting, because if there is anything about Bess’ work that I might be able to claim did strike me unmediated by the language of his story (a brittle claim, but arguable), it’s the way in which it suggests a language, a symbology crying out for decoding.

Before Man, 1952-1953
Before Man, 1952-1953

Indeed, reading a bit more about Bess and his work this turns out to be true: apparently he was plagued by visions from a young age, and his paintings work together to comprise a sort of dream journal.  According to him, the “ideograms,” were simply his records of the images that he saw on the “insides of his eyelids.” There is a lexicon on forrestbess.org that translates some of his glyphs.

Bess’ visions form a specific node along the narrative of his life and work as it’s often told, one of those above-mentioned paradoxes, though it’s really more of a slippage, a hey-wait-a-minute: you’ll often read of Forrest Bess as a “visionary” painter – and just like that, too: quotations marks and all, as though the writer were making the classic ironic T-rex fingers in the air. It was only after I’d read a few accounts that I got the joke, the double-meaning of the use of the word visionary, and the weird irony with which it was deployed.

This plays into another tendency in regards to writing Bess’ life/ work: an apparent inability to call it anything: he is neither a modernist nor an “actual” visionary; he is treated as a mystery, an oddity, an I-don’t-know-what-to-make-of-it. This, too, is fitting, considering the centrality of sexuality and gender to Bess thesis and life: Bess believed that “becoming a hermaphrodite was the key to immortality.” This belief, which eventually led to him performing surgery on himself, also problematizes the category of homosexuality – but only in that instance where someone claims that he was a homosexual, or cites said homosexuality as key in a specific turn in his life-narrative.

Dedication to Van Gogh, 1946
Dedication to Van Gogh, 1946

The above painting is a perfect example of the sort of word that I wanted to be able to use in reference to Bess’ work: a sort of bleak, mad, Texas-Heat-Rites-of-Spring affect, to which the detail of the fact that he lived the second part of his life “ in virtual isolation, on a strip of land accessible only by boat,” bears witness. And yet the title of the above piece reminds me more of (the feeling I had when I first saw) another painting by Bess, “Symbol of Flowers” (below), that seems to suggest a modern(ist?) spectre of Van Gogh’s Crows.

Symbol of Flowers, 1951
Symbol of Flowers, 1951

Perhaps it is because the narrative has played such an important role in my apprehension of Bess’ work that after reading a handful of these accounts I found myself full of the desire to see just where it was that Bess lived out the end of his life: I desired the denouement. Luckily for me, I have at my fingertips the Destroyer of the Sublime, Google Maps, and at least one other blogger who not only felt the same, but acted on said desire.

Though it seems just about impossible to find the exact location of Bess’ cabin- and/ therefore begs the question of why, beyond the need for some sort of denouement, one might care, it does seem as though it’s possible to get close enough. What struck me, however, was the extent to which the topography of the land on which Bess lived looks itself like the form of one of his paintings:

Bess Topography 1

, and even more so when you click over to Earth from Map

Bess Topography 2Which makes me wonder if it wasn’t the simple photograph of his cabin that lead me to the desire to physically visit the place where it used to be. I never did make it to the exhibit in Berkeley.  Maybe that’s it.

Bess Shack


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