Roy De Forest Springs Back to Life

Three concurrent exhibits solidify the reputation of an artist who, for a long time, was persona non grata in San Francisco.

Untitled, 2003, by Roy De Forest, courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art.

In San Francisco art circles, the year 1981 will always be associated with Robert Arneson’s Portrait of George (Moscone), the sculpture of the assassinated mayor that caused a massive public outcry. The San Francisco Arts Commission had intended to include it at the opening of the Moscone Convention Center, but the art body changed its mind after viewing the finished bust, which had bullet holes, faux blood, the words “Bang, Bang, Bang,” and a Twinkie image that alluded to Moscone’s brutal 1978 murder alongside Supervisor Harvey Milk at the hands of fellow Supervisor Dan White.

Lesser known: Roy De Forest, Arneson’s friend and fellow Funk artist, also submitted a work to the Arts Commission for display at the Moscone Center’s opening — and was also rejected. But just as Portrait of George (Moscone) ultimately re-emerged into greater public view — SFMOMA bought it from a private collector in 2012 — so, too, has De Forest’s work. It’s now at the Arts Commission’s main gallery, in “Civic Art Collection Focus: Roy De Forest” — one of three big De Forest exhibits encircling the Bay Area.

“Very dark” is how Meg Shiffler, director of the SFAC Galleries, described the piece as she stood before De Forest’s 1981 rendering on a recent weekday. How dark? How about two naked women — each with an oversized heart head, each connected with a kind of red umbilical cord that a dog holds in its mouth. A mustachioed, scar-faced man holds the dogs on red leashes, near a man brandishing a scythe. The work is titled Hypothetical Cartoon/Tapestry/Moscone Center/SF (Proposal for the Moscone Convention Center Competition), and it’s the antithesis of the charming, playful De Forest scenes that grace card boxes, calendars, and other popular fare for sale through Walmart, Amazon, and other commercial outlets.

The darker side of De Forest is also evident in his first career retrospective, “Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest,” at the Oakland Museum of California. One piece in particular, We Catch a Bleeding Hare, from 1978, is a panorama of darkly humorous violence, where a dog has a bloody, floppy-eared bunny in its grip, surrounded by odd-looking rabbits and a heart-headed man. The canvas is a kind of antecedent to Seth MacFarlane’s 2005 animated movie that imagines Elmer Fudd shooting Bugs Bunny to death. It’s also in keeping with De Forest’s and Arneson’s penchant for mining their instincts for humor, even if others considered that humor almost R-rated.

In her book that accompanies “Of Dogs and Other People,” art scholar Susan Landauer suggests that De Forest’s work after 1974 became edgier to counter the art world’s growing embrace of his accessible scenes of cute dogs — like 1972’s Country Dog Gentlemen, an SFMOMA work that’s on display at the Oakland Museum. De Forest’s life also became more complicated with the birth of his children, in 1975 and 1977. But De Forest never abandoned the whimsy and frolic of his earlier pieces, and he put himself — or a proxy, anyway — into his later works, whether it was the gray-haired painter traipsing through a forest with easel and palette (1992’s Painter of the Rain Forest) or his doppelganger hanging out with a Picasso-inspired woman, a dog, and other memorable figures (1993’s Painting the Big Painting).

Arneson did the same self-reflecting puns. They’re fun to see in person, and De Forest — who, like Arneson, taught at UC Davis for many years — added an extra touch to his drawings and paintings. He built his own frames, which contain outside layers of sculptural faces and animals.

These colorful frames are ubiquitous at Brian Gross Fine Art’s exhibit, “Man of Our Times: Drawings by Roy De Forest.” Red, one of De Forest’s favorite colors, is also ubiquitous in this show, especially in the distorted faces that De Forest festooned with dots of paint. De Forest died in 2007 at age 77. Dogs were not his only motif. But “man’s best friend” was there — in De Forest’s life and in his art — from beginning to end.

And they’re the draw that will prompt many people to visit the three concurrent exhibits. What they’ll find besides canines are dense collections of scenes with large-nosed men, Native Americans, mythological figures, devils, monsters, curious crows, chickens, and cows, De Forest himself — and lots of forests, with palm trees, flowers, and other foliage. This “double forest” motif seemed to be De Forest’s way of winking at himself. Even his Moscone submission contained a veritable forest of green grass, green trees, and green mountains.

“Civic Art Collection Focus: Roy De Forest”
Through Aug. 19 at the San Francisco Arts Commission main gallery,
401 Van Ness Ave., free; 415-252-2244 or
sfartscommission.org

“Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest”
Through Aug. 20 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. $9-$19.95, 415-318-8400 or museumca.org

“Man of Our Times: Drawings by Roy De Forest”
Through July 1 at Brian Gross Fine Art, 248 Utah St. Free; 415-788-1050 or briangrossfineart.com

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