On Social Studies
New work by Jeffrey Forsythe
by Russ White
Back in middle school, most of the subjects were pretty cut and dried: Math, Science, English, Gym. You knew what you were getting. But Social Studies was a weird one. More than simply a history class, Social Studies included lessons in our basic civic machinery (how laws are made, for example), specific regional history (in my case, that of North Carolina), and a communal code of ethics (rote memorization of the Emancipation Proclamation comes to mind). We even watched the OJ Simpson verdict live in eighth grade. It seems the curriculum intended not just to teach us history but to give us a sense of place within it. Social Studies, at its best, was there to make us both enthralled by and dissatisfied with the world around us; in other words, eager to engage it.
Jeffrey Forsythe’s show at Perimeter is a weird one, too. Here are paintings, sculptures, and drawings made with amazing precision and care that, at first glance, have relatively little to do with each other. There’s a Native American headdress, a wall of gold records, a stained glass window, an ornate mantle, a rowboat in a bottle, a bouquet, a pinata... You can quickly be overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of subjects and skills involved in all this work. But one theme is readily apparent throughout several pieces and helps give the show an initial structure: the trophy.
I should start with the image Forsythe chose for his invitation, the magnificent Trophy Case, an impeccably painted five foot tall canvas. Muted in flat grays and mild creams, this giant trophy case, embellished with perfectly rendered ornamental flourishments and intricately collaged paper flowers, holds at its center an image of the 20th Century Fox statue sinking beneath tumultuous waves. It takes a moment to realize there are actually no trophies in this trophy case; all of its display cubbies are empty. The intricacy of the cabinet, in all its Rococo glory, stands in stark contrast to the drama of the center circle, which calls to mind Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. Atop the case sits an either proud or ambivalent vulture in place of our eagle and the scrolling, flowery text “American superiority in the Twenty-first Century.” The message is clear: no good has come from American hegemony, and our self-described exceptionalism will be our downfall. The muted colors begin to seem funereal, and yet the old world splendor of the trophy case remains intact for the time being. We realize now that the vulture is simply waiting.
Where Trophy Case is a terribly serious picture totally devoid of trophies, Stakes are High is a funny painting with a single gigantic one. Forsythe presents the classic two-handled silver cup in place of the resurrected Jesus, who is revealing himself to his disciples. Here the collage work is largely abstracted and blocked with black lines to read as stained glass. The four apostles, faces and hands faint and pale in contrast to the bright papers, gape piously up at the floating trophy, itself draped in colorful flowing rags. By sneeringly substituting one trite symbol for what could be considered another, the painting challenges not only the ornate excesses of the Church but also the idea of salvation itself, turning the Western savior into a tacky ornament fit for a bragging display. Maybe the apostles are the real subjects here, the big-eyed opportunists that use the gospel for their own glory and benefit. Or perhaps, if we are still to take salvation seriously, the trophy frames religion as fundamentally competitive; maybe only one of these four will win the prize. Where there is but one trophy, it stands to reason there will be many losers.
Ode to the Common Man, a wall covered by fifteen multi-colored and multi-textured framed gold records, presents a more contemporary take on trophies. Gold records are a status symbol, proof of one’s skill at both art and commerce. They are the stuff of moguls but, from time to time, can be bought by any schlub at a pawn shop. Made of construction paper, velvet, faux fur, high-polish lacquer, and flat acrylic paint, this is an odd assortment of otherwise identical sculptures. The records, meant to hold great music, are visibly blank, as are their name plates. Yet each piece sings with individuality, and the full collection is not as sad a spectacle as the first two paintings. Perhaps Forsythe is trying to encapsulate different anonymous albums through his choice of material. Individually, these records evoke carpeted basement studios, crisp pop hits, the absurdity of laserdiscs, and, despite his best intentions I’m sure, the White Album. In spite of the blank name plates, there is a lot of information here, but we are charged with making sense of it all.
And therein lies the fundamental basis of the show, the common strand woven throughout all the work: the necessity of our participation with it. The artist respects us enough to not spell it all out, to let us fill in the blanks. We are walking through a bizarro world of status symbols recast in a decidedly nebulous light. Take the gigantic, gold-feathered chieftan’s headdress, It’s Good to Be the King. Everyone will approach this piece differently. The simplicity of form keeps it from reading as traditional regalia; despite its source material, this is not, to my mind, a piece about Native Americans. I see board rooms and Wall Street, a severe portrait of opulence in power. The spear-tip feathers and gray leather headband suggest a violent, imperial legacy, that of a conquering warrior or a successful arch-capitalist. Of course, someone else may see a celebration, a tribute, or a pastiche. True to the show’s title, this piece plays on our sense of history and artifact. You can imagine this headdress standing in a museum display case next to remnants of cultures lost to time, a train of thought that leaves us, again, looking at America’s own legacy. The cowboys won, after all.
Behind all of this work, in a second room of the show, are works almost entirely in white. The trophies are back, in the rough but methodically painted Piñata and in the hilarious Best in Show, a six-foot long, overly decorative mantle displaying only a small mantle-shaped trophy that it has apparently won. While some of Forsythe’s drawings read primarily as blueprints for his larger work, Pay Day and the untitled drawing of trophies stacked inside a glass jug bring a hard-edged surrealism to the show. They would be distracting from the other work if not for their empty calm, like technical studies of ancient marble statuary. The paper is mostly blank, and again it is for us to fill in.
But possibly the most successful piece in the whole show is one of its simplest: Boat in a Bottle. Here the artist turns another cultural artifact, the immaculate schooner impossibly assembled inside a glass bottle, completely on its head. Instead of the grand, multi-sailed ship, a hand-carved rowboat no bigger than the mouth of the bottle floats unmanned inside, its oars drifting abandoned beside it. The image is sad, portentous, narrative, and immensely funny all at the same time. I can’t help but think the big ship that originally inhabited this giant bottle must have sunk, and the tragically unused lifeboat is all that remains. Forsythe is making fun of himself, too, using our expectation of a magically assembled boat in a bottle to leave us disappointed when we realize all he had to do was push the stupid rowboat in with his finger. For someone capable of the craftsmanship evident in the rest of the show, he is clearly having fun with us here. This is a piece that plays (in the true sense of the word) with class, with craft, and with us. Like the empty trophy case or the blank gold records, Boat in a Bottle is a nearly empty vessel, there for us to fill with our own meaning.
Social Studies, at its heart, is about our relationship with ambition, not just as a society but as individuals within it. Every viewer will bring to the work their own politics, their own assumptions, their own expectations for fine art, and thankfully Forsythe is mature enough to leave room in his work for us to move around. The work here could easily have been loud and brash in its cultural criticism. But the show, for all its eccentricity, is really quite hushed and grounded. We are invited to question our assumptions, to acknowledge our legacies, to literally laugh at our pride. And those that give the work their full attention will be handsomely rewarded.
New work by Jeffrey Forsythe
by Russ White