The Playful Artist: John Forrest At The Metro – OpEd


He is playful. He teases. He spices the goods. A touch of the George Grosz, a Weimar garnish of vicious satire. A dash of ribald fun. But there is little doubt that John Forest is very acute. He is holding us for the laugh. He is encouraging us to take hold of the subject matter and admit that JFK did have a hole put into his head from the grassy knoll. He also did more than merely goose Marilyn Monroe. So, there they are, together, on the beach of empty seats in Ghosts on the Sands of Santa Monica. Celebrity meets power, and death.

There is so much that is infuriatingly dull about the art scene. In Melbourne, where social constipation is taken to religious levels, there is a fear that an original play on subject matter might encourage a lethal pandemic. Consequently, promotions are often painful to see. But there is something refreshing about expressions of brute honesty – the honesty that Hollywood is not merely fantasy, but a fantasy worth mocking. If Hollywood is Picasso’s bathroom, as Candice Bergen is reputed to have remarked, then Forrest is on perfect ground, observing the bizarre personal clutter of the dream factory.

Language is everything. It deceives, it promotes, and it annihilates meanings whilst forming others. Here, in the exhibition at the Metro in Melbourne, titled after the signature painting Hollywood Flesh, the language of acrylic on canvas makes you laugh. In an age where the art caption is divorced from art content, Forrest brings them together in wickedly amusing ways. Monroe can just as easily become Marlin – a buxom woman assumes the form of a shapely fish in a dress. There are sketches of the grotesque and the amusing suggesting that Forrest might well have been at home in Weimar Germany. Safe Sex features one lover’s nose being fingered by another, their faces a picture of contentment. There are the merrily absurd, one sketch captured by the title, Phil believed that everything in his house had been stolen and replaced with identical objects.

The humour used by Forrest doesn’t conceal Hollywood’s grinding brutality. His depictions are very much those of the damaged, the worn and the destroyed. In the varied spread of images offered in Lethal Weapons, Jimmy Dean’s Porsche and Ronnie’s (Ronald Reagan’s) souped brain come up for examination along with the decorated loos of Graceland. The sensuous life is not necessarily a well lived one. It is insular, psychologically corrosive. The industry consumes and feeds unstable souls. In the Forrest show, one almost feels a touch of pity for these subjects. Could they have known better?

At the end of the day, what is there to say about the monster of dreams, the factory that markets fantasy as readily as McDonald’s packages polystyrene? The only ism Hollywood believes in, says Dorothy Parker, is that of plagiarism. Ideas are pinched, recycled and pinched again. There is no ideology, only a pilfering practice. And here it is, themes brought together, pieced together with irreverence, themes that echo – the bemused, even shocked cast of the Wizard of Oz gazing down at the absorbed figures of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster on the Hawaiian beach at Halona Cove in Hollywood Flesh. This is Forrest at his best, the sexless utopia of those who pursue the yellow brick road, and very sexual, troubled side of Hollywood. Sea, sand and pulp fiction, with lashings of pathos.

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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