Shin­ing ex­hibit, dark his­tory

Yet ‘For­rest Bess/Joan Sny­der’ proves re­ward­ing

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - cal­en­dar@la­times.com By David Pagel

“For­rest Bess/Joan Sny­der” at Par­rasch Hei­j­nen Gallery helps to tran­scend tor­tured artist’s past.

At Par­rasch Hei­j­nen Gallery, “For­rest Bess/Joan Sny­der” brings to­gether works by two very dif­fer­ent artists to ac­com­plish some­what dif­fer­ent goals: 1) to point out ex­actly what’s go­ing on in the work of each painter, and 2) to tug Bess’ art out from un­der the shadow of his life story, which is heart-wrench­ing.

In the first gallery hang 10 lit­tle paint­ings that Sny­der (born 1940) made in 1967 and 1968 on pages un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously torn from a spi­ral sketch­book. In the sec­ond gallery hang 14 com­pact oils that Bess (1911-1977) painted on can­vas and Ma­sonite in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

The com­pare-and-con­trast ex­er­cise pays off in spades. The works by Sny­der and Bess have lots in com­mon. Both are in­ti­mate. Both are am­bi­tious. And both are ab­stract but not purely so. Hints of im­agery oc­ca­sion­ally ap­pear, along with the sug­ges­tion of spa­tial depth. Scale is am­bigu­ous — shift­ing from cel­lu­lar to cos­mic, and back.

Color counts for both artists — par­tic­u­larly when solid chunks of pink and blue, red and black, or brown and white grind to­gether. Com­po­si­tions, riven by in­ter­nal ten­sions, keep har­mony and res­o­lu­tion out of the pic­ture.

And that’s where the great­est con­trasts come into fo­cus.

Sny­der’s works on pa­per, made of spray paint, pas­tel, pen­cil, char­coal and mark­ing pens, sug­gest that no sin­gle ma­te­rial — or ap­proach to mark-mak­ing — has the ca­pac­ity to cap­ture the com­plex­ity of re­al­ity. Her elu­sive ab­strac­tions make a virtue of keep­ing one’s op­tions open.

Bess’ rock-solid com­po­si­tions move in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. One foot is firmly planted in the re­al­ity we see with our eyes, while the other is firmly planted in the re­al­ity our souls sense. His blunt com­po­si­tions strive to hold both to­gether.

Some, like “Man­dala,” “Un­ti­tled (Pink Moon)” and “The No­ble Car­bun­kle” suc­ceed, mak­ing it seem that square pegs some­times fit in round holes. Oth­ers, like “Fam­ily Group,” “Un­ti­tled No. 6” and “Un­ti­tled (Rain­bow With Arc)” in­ti­mate that the world is out of sync with it­self — and that there may be no hope for re­pair, much less re­demp­tion.

Th­ese are among Bess’ most po­tent works. The emo­tions they em­body res­onate against his bi­og­ra­phy, which in­cludes drop­ping out of col­lege, hav­ing a psy­cho­log­i­cal break­down that ended his World War II service, pur­su­ing a her­mit-like ex­is­tence on the Gulf Coast of Texas and un­der­go­ing DIY surgery on his gen­i­tals in the be­lief that it might make him a more well-rounded hu­man.

“For­rest Bess/Joan Sny­der” gives art its due, nei­ther gloss­ing over the con­text from which it came nor let­ting his­tory tell the whole story. That makes room for view­ers, each of us in­vited to in­ter­pret the art for our­selves.

Images from Par­rasch Hei­j­nen Gallery

“UN­TI­TLED (RAIN­BOW With Arc)” by For­rest Bess sug­gests a world that’s out of sync with it­self.

“UN­TI­TLED NO. 18” is a Bess oil paint­ing from 1952 and, like many of Sny­der’s works, is rel­a­tively small (less than a square foot).

“RED RECTANGLE/Grab­bing” is artist Joan Sny­der’s work from 1968 in which she em­ploys char­coal, marker and crayon on pa­per.

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