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Howls of Surreal Acrylic
Roy De Forest, Sayako Dairiki, Temo Moreno
at the John Natsoulas Gallery

By Paul Dorn, Davis Enterprise art critic

Art review:
Roy De Forest, Sayako Dairiki, Temo Moreno
Where: John Natsoulas Gallery
521 First Street, Davis; 756-3961
When: through Apr. 1
Hours: 10 am - 5 pm, Tuesday through Thursday
11 am - 10 pm, Friday; 12 - 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday

Roy De Forest has always been a difficult artist to categorize. (New York critic Hilton Kramer once described De Forest's work as "Marx Brothers fauvism.") Known for his phantasmagorically chaotic images of cartoonish figures and cheerfully loony canines, rendered with a distinctive "paint drop kiss" technique, De Forest is generally lumped in with the Bay Area Funk artists of the 1960s.

Like East Coast Pop Art, California's Funk movement-which also included such important figures as William T. Wiley, Wally Hedrick and Robert Arneson-was a response to the oppressive gospel of abstract expressionism that dominated the aesthetic canon and art schools of post-WWII America. With a delightful lack of self-importance, Funk provided a welcome niche for iconoclastic figures such as De Forest. In addition to his unique mythological iconography, De Forest's appealing irreverence distinguished him from contemporaries such as Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud, Joan Brown and Richard Diebenkorn. De Forest studied at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute)-sadly no longer the hotbed of artistic innovation it was then-before completing an MA at San Francisco State University, and later becoming an influential instructor at UC Davis.

His latest work on view at the Natsoulas Gallery reveals De Forest mining familiar territory. Well, yes, De Forest's beady-eyed, tongue-lolling dogs continue to feature prominently. This is especially true with his cast-bronze sculptures "Hyena" and "The Dog Bench," the later piece commissioned for the UC Davis Art in Public Places program. However, while the humor remains, De Forest's images have become even more chaotic and disjointed. Where his work once suggested coherent narrative, his newest work often seems more a too surreal assemblage of random images with scant relation.

Some of these overly busy images work better than others. Showing he isn't immune to overdone televised phenomenona, De Forest deconstructs reality TV programming with his mixed media work "Survivor." A fellow stands proudly in a raised fist salute, resplendent in the tattered remains of his pants and a dandy chapeau (describing the head wear featured in a De Forest painting as a "hat" just doesn't cut it). A quick glance at this subject's surroundings-a pale, barren expanse-makes one wonder, just what is he so proud of? It's a rather hollow pride. Yes, in this meager patch of real estate, our defiant figure dominates. But his companions-a well-fed bird, the ubiquitous smiling dog and a monkey who resembles our hero-seem more at ease, if less vain. If we weren't looking, what difference would it make which of these figures is sovereign of the scene?

Our heroes, Chapeau Man with his walking stick and faithful sidekick dog, appear again in "Dog Mountain." They stand on top of a tree stump, surveying the surrounding territory, which is filled with Mt. Rushmore-style alpine heads. We see what we want to see, De Forest seems to suggest, and if we prefer to see our own narcissistic images instead of nature, then we're likely blind to the stump-filled consequences (a them repeated in his image "Special Delivery"). His "loner with dog" motif repeats in a set of two successful "Island Traveler" woodblock prints, where the Chapeau dude looks about his remote surroundings, isolated and alone, except for mischievous Fido.

De Forest's recent mixed-media on paper works are complemented by several acrylic on panel paintings, such as his series of smaller "Pattern" grids. In his "Dog Pattern, One," for instance, De Forest lays on thick paint in a colorful checkerboard pattern, amidst which a vigorously smiling red-eyed black dog stares out at us. Others of this series feature canine and human subjects, and continue De Forest's exploration of color, form, line, patterns and methods of paint application. De Forest's "Four Shepherds" is an uproarious hit, as a quartet of panting canines stand in formation in their patterned suits.

Upstairs at the Natsoulas Gallery are paintings by Winters artist Sayako Dairiki, a native of Japan who wrestles with some of the icons of Western art: Picasso, van Gogh, Gauguin, Klimt. Her large oil on canvas paintings use much of their visual vocabulary-swirling starry skies, tropical scenes, sullen figures in cafes, cherubic girls, colorful patterns. Dairiki introduces her own distinctive elements, most notably a small rounded figure "Shadow Man," perhaps-like De Forest's chapeau-wearing dandy-an artistic alter-ego? Dairiki presents this horizontally striped figure in a painting of that name, where the central figure appears on a road, seemingly in a state of stasis behind claustrophobic prison-like vertical lines.

Most effective of Dairiki's works is a series of "poet" paintings, portraying poets doing what poets do best: hanging out in cafes, drinking, practicing appropriate morose attitudes and plotting new ways to cast disdain at the straight-laced bourgeoisie. (Dairiki's stepson is Eli Hammond of the band Nasscar Poets.) "The Poet" in particular is a tour de force, possibly inspired by Picasso's earlier work with a touch of van Gogh's energetic flourishes. The emotionless subject confronts us, holding a flower in one hand, the other hand in a relaxed pose, while musicians and clouds rain down inspiration. Traveling through the image, observing the scene, sharing its energy, is "Shadow Man."

Also at the Natsoulas are a series of music box paintings by Temo Moreno, a UC Davis grad who now teaches art at Woodland High School. Highly representational scenes of Boston (where Moreno did graduate studies), skyscrapers, ballerinas and skaters are incorporated into "music boxes" and other dimensional objects. Moreno's work is a clever examination of perception and representation, conveying the ways in which the world is known to us-largely through framed images of one sort of another. Our conciousness seems conditioned (by television? Pop culture? public education?) to expect scenery "contained" in some manner, Moreno suggests. We don't experience the world; we look at it.


Additional Art Reviews by Paul Dorn
Blog: War Budget Gone Bad
Pedaling to Save the City
Cycling in Bike-Friendly Davis, California
Cycling in Osaka, Japan
Two Months of Red Splendor: The Paris Commune and Karl Marx' Theory of Revolution

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