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Thursday, April 8, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Artist As Wag -- Roy De Forest's Work Is Full Of Humor - And Canines

Seattle Times Art Critic

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"Roy De Forest: New Work," through May 1, at Linda Hodges Gallery, 410 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 206-624-3034.

Roy De Forest, painter of crazy-eyed, cheerfully loony, phantasmagorical dogs, is standing in the Linda Hodges Gallery in Pioneer Square. Since 10 of his big paintings and drawings are hanging on the walls, the gallery seems to me in the middle of human and canine migration across a vast new continent. In the paintings, potato-nosed guys in big hats march through deserts and canyons like an army. Dogs with yellow eyes and erect ears trot along with them. Trees that resemble electric-blue palm trees dot the land. Everyone in the room seems to be on the move, including De Forest, who has just noticed a real dog walking by the gallery with its owner. He rushes to the window for a closer look.

"Nice dog," he says, noting that he likes to observe the way dogs move. Still, it's hard to pull much more information about dogs from the painter, who at 68 is one of the West Coast's best-known and most enduring artists. Dogs populate his paintings as often as angels hover in scenes by Tiepolo. Though the canines often play supporting roles, in the past they've also been his main characters, stand-ins for humans in the fantasy worlds De Forest creates.

Does he own dogs? "I only have one dog now. I have had four at once before."

Why did he first start putting dogs in so many of his paintings? "The dogs come from a David Hockney painting I saw once. There were a couple of guys with dogs in the painting, and I liked it. Dogs are man's best friend, after all."

Do the dogs, and for that matter the sweeping vistas and people on the march, represent ideas or themes? "Well, I don't like to delve into the scenario of the work too much. Miro said he didn't want to explain what his paintings were about because it takes the fun out of it. It's true." Like the characters in his paintings, he tends to stand in profile, even when speaking to an interviewer.

De Forest may be reserved verbally but his paintings are screamfests of color and action. Even the frames, which he makes himself from wood and plastic, are exuberant.

For more than 40 years he's been one of California's most difficult-to-categorize artists. Like his contemporaries Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud, Joan Brown and Richard Diebenkorn, he rejected the gospel of abstract expressionism taught in art schools in the 1950s, and struck out after his own individual style. Like many of his California contemporaries, he moved into figurative work.

But unlike some others, such as Diebenkorn, De Forest's wild and woolly aesthetic with its fantasy landscapes and eccentric cast of characters also put him on the fringes of the San Francisco funk art movement of the '60s and '70s. Though De Forest says his work is related to such 19th-century landscape genres as the Hudson River School and painters including Thomas Moran, De Forest's work is also funny. His people look like cartoon characters and his dogs frequently seem like creatures out of '50s zombie movies. The New York critic Hilton Kramer once aptly described De Forest's work "Marx Brothers fauvism."

Does De Forest think there's humor in his work? "Well, a lot of contemporary painting is very stuffed shirt stuff, so, perhaps there's some humor."

De Forest's show this month at Linda Hodges Gallery is a coup for Hodges. De Forest hasn't had a show in Seattle for 20 years, though he averages two to three shows a year at galleries in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris and elsewhere. His work is included in the permanent collections of museums from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Hodges said she decided to call him and offer him a show after finding out that De Forest and Eastern Washington artist Gaylen Hansen would be together in a traveling show organized by the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls, Mont.

The show from Montana will be at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Skagit County, from June 1 to Aug. 30. It's a wonder that nobody has thought to put the pair together in a show before. Both artists mix humor with art historical parody. Both create larger-than-life human characters and supernatural animals engaged in adventures on grand landscapes.

The connection between Hansen - beloved for his Paul Bunyanesque paintings of mammoth bison, birds and salmon being chased around by a white-bearded sodbuster - and De Forest goes way back. Though he was born in Nebraska, De Forest moved to Yakima as a child. After attending art school in San Francisco he returned to Yakima in 1958 and taught art at Yakima Junior College for two years. Hansen was teaching at Washington State University in Pullman and the two artists became friends.

In 1960 De Forest moved back to Northern California, where he still lives. He taught for many years at the University of California at Davis, one of the state's most illustrious art schools.

Since few of the works in the Linda Hodges Gallery have titles, viewers are on their own to come up with theories about De Forest's art. "The formal structure of my work comes from Max Beckman, Matisse, the European modern masters," said De Forest.

Still, he offers a hint about one painting that shows a man standing on a bit of land, either a wisp of a peninsula or a desert island. Some Crayola-colored palm trees are scattered on the land; blue water surrounds it. The man holds a wide-brimmed hat in one hand. He could be a conquistador surveying his latest discovery. "Maybe he's Ponce de Leon," said De Forest. That would make the grinning dog with red eyes standing at his feet Ponce de Leon's dog.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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