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Tucson Weekly Gloomily Luminous

Joe Forkan Displays An Old World Despair At Raw Gallery

By Margaret Regan

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  FRESH FROM A European sojourn, painter Joe Forkan is exhibiting a new body of work with distinctly Old World proclivities.

Forkan, a local illustrator who frequently contributes to the Tucson Weekly and other publications, has delved into the grand old art of oil painting. It's not often on the contemporary scene that we see the old-fashioned technique Forkan displays in the brooding works in his one-person show at Raw Gallery. Like an old-time painter, he methodically layers his oils, making each layer transparent enough to allow the underlying colors to shine through. He scratches and gouges with abandon in the fluent paint. And then he varnishes the whole to a high shine.

But these dark paintings owe more than technique to the latter-day Europeans. Endowed by their gloomily luminous colors with an undercurrent of emotionalism, they're full of a sense of decay, of the kind of cosmopolitan despair captured by the German Expressionists in the dissipated days of Weimar. In "The Dance," for instance, two couples take a turn on a bile-green floor, their deep-green shadows suggesting the confines of the claustrophobic dance hall. The solid figures of the couples, two men and a hetero pair, are built up by various strokes of color: white, yellow, flesh, orange. Their facial features are indistinguishable, brightly lit though they are by harsh artificial lights. There's no sense of joy enlivening these anonymous party-goers. Rather, they're enveloped by a sense of foreboding; they dance, so to speak, while waiting for Rome to burn. In "The Bastard," two meaty figures emerge ominously from a deep bruise-colored background, again relying on flashes of light to distinguish themselves from the shadows.

No less melancholy--but perhaps more American--are some paintings based on old photographs. Though the pictures Forkan uses are not from his own family, they still resonate with the heartbreak of past time. "Relics of Misremembrance" is a finely painted triptych that dissects the tricks played by memory. In the central panel, a little girl is standing on a sidewalk. Outfitted in a cloche hat, dress, Mary Janes and anklets, she's clearly a child of the '20s or '30s. He's painted the street scene in the pretty sentimental pinks and yellows of memory. But in the panel to the right, the little girl's already started to dissolve, and at left, in a blank panel of deep green, she doesn't exist at all. Likewise, "Reunion" is a photo-inspired painting of a group of men, dressed in the optimistic overcoats and jaunty felt business hats of the '40s and '50s. They pose manfully in some anonymous public space. The painting is a kind of Hopperesque take on the aching sadness of modern life. It records a generation that is waning fast, just as their figures are fading into the deep grays of Forkan's background.

More confrontational is "Lost Ground," another dark image that pictures a panic-stricken figure in full flight. He's running headlong toward the viewer, fleeing out of one of those classic receding-perspective backgrounds, made up of a series of telephone poles and railway cars disappearing diagonally into the vanishing point. It's a deliberately murky but evocative painting of fright. Likewise, "Misremembrances #1," one of a series of deft monoprints, conjures up primal despair. Like Munch's famous screamer, the isolated figure in this one is all alone in an ominously undulating landscape. The roiling clouds and fields echo the figure's rollicking emotions.

Over at Dinnerware Gallery, Michael Chittock's bright mixed-media paintings look downright cheerful by comparison. Instead of the Forkan palette of bruise maroon, olive and gray, Chittock paints his figurative works in cheerful oranges and rusts, complemented by vivid royal blues, or in mesmerizing blends of gold, maize and ochre. And Chittock takes a wholly opposing approach to his materials: He builds up his paints to the third dimension with sawdust and wax, and he turns them into collages by gluing in all manner of found objects, from porno newspapers to painted teddy bears.

But that doesn't mean that his subjects are not serious. Building his pictures around portraits of people in his life, the painter makes metamorphical narratives on some of the grand themes. In "A Father's Passage," a dead father floats serenely in a lovely golden sky, while on the earth below a young woman sits in a benevolent landscape of rusty orange. She's young and nubile, still fully a part of life, and there's no grief to be found in her face. But she's wearing a real-life wristwatch, and it's ticking away: her time will come. The somewhat heavy-handed symbolism of the watch notwithstanding, the work is a fine contemplation on death.

Another, "Heaven's Gate," is a harmonious narrative about birth. (Like several others in this show, it was seen earlier this year in a small group exhibition at M. Revak & Co.) In it, a dreamy woman, heavily pregnant, curves her pale yellow flesh in sleep. Below her are images of the fertile earth--painted postcards of mountains against the sky, fish-like creatures among some reeds--and behind her are flat planes of orange and black. It's a fine composition at once organic and geometric, figurative and abstract.

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