The name Roy is rooted in the word royalty. El Rey—The King, or at least The Nut King. Roy De Forest reigns supreme over his lands Of Dogs and Other People—his posthumous retrospective on view at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA).
In addition to this museum study of Roy De Forest, there have been smaller displays of the artist’s work around San Francisco: an exhibition of De Forest’s late career drawings at Brian Gross Fine Art (which handles the artist’s estate), a contemporary group show inspired by De Forest and curated by Steven Wolf at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, and a display of Bay Area Art from the 50s and 60s at Foster-Gwin—not to mention LA-based Parker Gallery’s exhibition Nut Art, the title an aesthetic style coined by De Forest.
And while the rest of the Bay Area is busy looking in its rearview at flowers and faded tie dye from the Summer of Love, the OMCA has set its sights on a more peculiar type of psychedelia: one seen through the canine kaleidoscope into the world of Roy De Forest. The Summer of Love was fifty years ago. 2017 is the Summer of Roy, so I took a trip down the rabbit hole into the Forest of the King.
At 10:30am, I pick up my X-Acto knife and slice an emerald green gel tab in half, then half again. I’m aware of this speck at the end of my finger, it’s legacy in the transformation of this city, and subsequently, a generation’s cultural worldview. No bigger than a cracker crumb, this dot catapulted our species into a new frontier: the cerebral wild west that spawned the free-love gold rush of 1967.
A fleck of alien dandruff, this tiny green pepper flake hangs the tightrope between bliss and schizophrenia that LSD veterans have learned to carefully walk. The psychonautic fuel for the sailors of the soul. The chemical keys to enlightenment, the trainers to race through the corridors of human perception, the diminutive wrecking ball to the barriers of our senses. Brain expander. Time warper. A curtain lifted, demonstrating how all matter ripples and breathes, emanating from a tiny speck on the tip of my index finger.
If you ever feel like really testing your character, go to a public space and eat lunch alone on LSD. But I’m getting ahead of myself..
A standard dose of LSD is around 100 micrograms (micro-, one millionth of a gram). Microdosing involves taking about one tenth of a full dose.
The slight jolt to the system offered by microdosing is intended to have the user feel more in touch and focused. Microdosing has been used to bring about a sense of wellness or as an aid in creative work. Increasingly it has been taken and studied as an approach in the treatment of depression. The effects include a sharpened concentration, boost in energy, mild euphoria, and the hint of doing psychedelics without the real risks that typically come with the Lysergic territory. Microdosing is “safer” than ingesting LSD full-on; the neutered version of a raw and revolutionary experience. By microdosing, the user avoids a total plunge into ego-death and epiphany, but gets the opportunity to dip one’s toes into the kiddy pool of psychedelia.
Some of the first acid pioneers emerged in 1960’s San Francisco, catalyzing cultural, political, and social shifts. A cerebral fault line emerged between those who have and those who have not taken LSD. The creative juices of psychedelia wove its way into the fabric of Bay Area arts, and LSD is a major protagonist in the Summer of Love’s romanticized story.
In the aftershock of the Summer of Love, creative communities were injected with higher consciousness, social and political activism, a unique musical sound, and radical shifts in expression. From this epicenter, communities were born. Those that flowed through San Francisco carried this torch on their tongue into vibrant cultural territory. One particular community, twenty odd years later, would blossom into an effigy-burn on Baker Beach, that would in turn spawn a pilgrimage, culture, and lifestyle all its own.
Burning Man seemingly embraces LSD more openly than the fine arts. The annual event, which could arguably be a direct descendant from Golden Gate Park’s Human Be-In of 1967, is one of the most psychedelic happenings of modern times. The event and its participants also tend to be apathetic to the academic and bourgeois concerns that the fine arts community clings to. Both groups value expression and creative ambition, where they diverge falls somewhere on the spectrum of cultural hierarchy. In this land of earthquakes, LSD could very well have contributed to a tectonic separation of the Burning Man community and the Fine Arts community. On the surface, these two contemporary cultural forces have a lot in common, but how often do the two diagrams really Venn together?
A more recent rift among Bay Area creatives is along the Silicon Valley fault line. The Silicon Valley demographic (not necessarily confined to the region) seems to have aligned itself more with Burning Man than the Fine Artists, as Black Rock City partially transforms into a networking platform for tech elites. Young Silicon Valley professionals have recently adopted the trend of microdosing as a way to tap into creativity and “dial up their careers.” The skeptic in me worries that this trend started as some distorted fantasy that taking LSD would help create the next Steve Jobs – a mighty fall from the Summer of Love’s compassionate spirit and unity for all mankind.
So LSD’s impact on the creative output of this geographic region is undeniable, infiltrating most creative communities. Through microdosing, the LSD experience has almost become normalized. If acid has become the stand-in for coffee or adderall, how countercultural can it be?
At 11:30am I entered the exhibition. Perhaps due to a heightened dilation, the colors were immediately supersaturated. The yellows of a sun soaked mustard–straight from the tube to my eyeballs. Every section of canvas opaque, textured, exploding. Roy the Maximalist.
De Forest’s eccentric approach to paint and subject blends together two- and three-dimensional techniques. Paintings adorned with elements that jut out from the surface, nearly every piece contained within a decorated and ornate frame. According to the exhibition catalogue, De Forest’s most notable inspirations come from Australian Aboriginal bark paintings and the work of Piet Mondrian—a leveling of cultural hierarchy.
In his book Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art, critic and writer Ken Johnson discusses the shifts away from traditional connoisseurship—how boundaries between painting and sculpture became fluid and hierarchical distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture were rendered irrelevant. De Forest’s practice exemplifies this method of artmaking.
De Forest is notorious for his paint ‘dollops’ that convey everything from eyes to landscapes—and these dollops barnacle almost all of his works. The dimensionality of painting is never lost. He had the sensibilities of a sculptor, and the work seems to be acutely aware of its object-ness. De Forest paints with the materiality of the paint, not the illusion that paint provides.
Straight from the horse’s mouth: “Rather than, say, taking an image and then finding a way to express it in paint, sometimes I think about how to use a paint and then find an image that fits it.”
This is how one builds, not renders. Each form is defined by its materiality. Always additive, De Forest builds layers of paint (and narrative) on top of each other. Once the canvas packs in all the color and imagery it can, that process percolates into the frame and ornamentation of the scene.
The working method of ‘breaking through’ the painting and onto the frame runs parallel to the psychedelic experience, to zoom outside oneself to examine surroundings through a new lens. Containers are recognized, and in their recognition they receive embellishments. De Forest’s work is consistently self-aware. The paint knows that it’s paint, the frames know they’re frames, the whole package is a fully resolved meta-object bursting with texture and color. No part of the process is ignored, and no part is exempt from becoming stylized. His work is not finished until every last inch has been examined and turned over by the artist’s hand. He’s borderline paranoid about it.
By noon I was feeling it. Definitely milder than a full-on trip, but enough of a punch to make the experience unusual and my museum navigation variable. Wading through dollops and dogs, I felt overwhelmed: in every painting, everything is happening all at once. Roy pulls no punches – color, figure, animal, landscape, window, texture, frame—they’re all there, all the time. The paintings actually seem to work better at a distance, before I become consumed by their globule glow and primordial West Coast churnings.
Roy De Forest, the agrarian shaman, showcases sincerity and complexity throughout his oeuvre—an unconditional love for the creative act. A loyal, obedient commitment to his craft, a real and recognizable response to the world that surrounded him. The forest is dense and wild, overgrown, heavily populated, lush, teeming with life. Sometimes difficult to absorb—especially the more abstracted, quilt-like, topographic paintings. Individually the works are beautiful, idiosyncratic, explosive. Seeing it all at once, I’m losing my mind. My eyes can’t sit still, even as the King dangles these colorful morsels in front of my nose.
A Roy De Forest painting will shine in a group show like a rare thrift-store-score. When all those nuggets are packed into one room, it’s an overdose, even with the most micro of doses. I’m swimming in creative output and unmixed paint. It’s quicksand—and the further I fall into a painting, the harder it becomes to wrap my head around what I’m looking at.
The most intense “visual” during the exhibition experience was incited while listening to a fifth grader’s interpretation of the painting Hans Bricker in the Tropics:
“Looking at this painting … okay, so I imagined it like this world inside a hollow mandarin, and then everyone from outside is peeling off the rind and is looking into this small world inside a hollow mandarin. What first catches my eye is these triangles falling down from the top of the painting. I feel like it’s like someone from the outer world ripping into this tiny world and looking into it. And then he or she, whoever that person is, on the outside is maybe calling to the brick man and like, “Come back, come back,” and he’s like, “I can’t.”
That’s some heavy shit!
These listening stations are sprinkled throughout the exhibition; some work, others don’t. The mandarin-world is my favorite. I participated in a guided meditation that didn’t really take hold, heard from a dog trainer spouting about different breeds, and listened to a sword swallower who sounded like she was about to ... cry? I was feeling kinda weird at this point. There was a man sitting with a cane that could have walked right out of a painting and into the museum—possibly even De Forest himself. This is not the only time I think a museum-goer jumped out of a painting during my trip.
It’s now around 1:30. Past lunchtime. Eating on LSD has always been a personal challenge. With a butter knife and compromised dexterity, I spread my tomato jam on my kale and ricotta panini (yeah, I know). I suddenly feel like I am straddling the line between man and beast. Where does one start and the other begin? I feel funky, and think of a Jim Melchert quote: “[Good funk] attempts to resolve those two essences of mankind: one a striving toward perfectibility, the other a kind of gross realization that we’re all just animals.” As I struggle to eat lunch like a normal person I recognize this battle at the core of De Forest’s work. He is man and beast, dog and person.
Basking in the sun on the OCMA’s outdoor patio, I hastily write down the realization, noticing my notebook undulating underneath my pen.
Burning Man has a well-documented history that deserves a proper telling. In my current state, I am not qualified to do that. My intention is to present the role LSD plays in this community in relation to the arts. ↩
See Nick Bilton, "A Line Is Drawn In The Desert: At Burning Man, the Tech Elite One-Up One Another" in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/21/fashion/at-burning-man-the-tech-elite-one-up-one-another.html?_r=0. ↩
See "Microdosing trend has Americans tuning in with psychedelics" in Medical Xpress. ↩
Roy De Forest, interview by Mady Jones, August 14-15, 1981, transcript, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute. ↩
De Forest worked as a professor at UC Davis for 27 years, a school known for its agriculture program. ↩