BAM’s ‘Seeing Things Invisible’ explores work of obscure visionary artist

Berkeley Art Museum/Courtesy

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The expansive gray space of the Berkeley Art Museum nearly trumps the small paintings of Forrest Bess that line a section of its walls. Don’t let that description fool you — “Seeing Things Invisible” requires exactly that of the viewer. These are works in conversation with each other, evoking Bess’ Jungian belief that the symbolism of his visions tap into the collective unconscious.

The traveling exhibition opened at BAM yesterday and will run until Sept. 14. This is the first retrospective of the relatively unknown visionary artist in about 20 years. Although Bess died of a stroke in 1977, he leaves behind a legacy of abstract art and philosophies that have only become more mysterious as time has passed.

Bess lived an isolated life as a fisherman on the Chinquapin Bay on the Gulf Coast of Texas, but excerpts of his life are documented in his correspondences with famed figures such as gallery owner Betty Parsons, art historian Meyer Schapiro and sexologist John Money.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he dedicated himself to painting his visions in 1946. He kept a sketchbook at his bedside so that he could faithfully render the imagery that he perceived on his eyelids. Here, sensory perception folds in on itself, as it is on the cusp of the imagined and the physical. Instead of being direct representations of reality, his paintings are direct representations of dreams.

One of the most mysterious aspects of Bess’ work is his ability to conjoin opposing elements. While his imagery is conceptually abstract, his paintings are grounded in the blunt materiality of thick brush strokes, crude handling and the three-dimensionality of jutting woodblocks in “The Three Doors” (1959).

The texture of the painting called “The Penetrator” (1967) features crackles, outlines that diverge from straightness and brush strokes that chaotically disperse in direction while being layered into a unified coloration. The stark cloisonnism of the blocks of green, white and yellow emphasize the so-called penetration of these colors by a series of bold black lines. Much like the act of penetration, these elements of the painting weave in and out of detachment and connection.

Perhaps this conjoining of opposites is a metaphor for Bess’ idea about the relationship between body and mind. In particular, he developed a theory that the union of female and male opposites was the path to immortality in its regenerative process. This is the first exhibition of his work where his thesis is displayed alongside his paintings, as he intended.

In the early 1950s, Bess performed two auto-surgeries where he subincised an orifice into his scrotum so it could be penetrated by a penis. His resulting self-described pseudo-hermaphroditism was the prescription for his missing female element.

Bess’s sexual history provides crucial context to paintings such as “Tree of Life / Sign of the Hermaphrodite” (1953). The newfound versatility of his gender informs the versatility of the painting’s meaning — where it is titled “Tree of Life” when viewed vertically and “Sign of the Hermaphrodite” when hung horizontally.

In his thesis, Bess wrote, “The ‘Tree of Life’ constitutes not the penis growing on the scrotum but the scrotum as the foliage and the perineum as the trunk and the penis (outer) as the limb or the Branch. It is the ‘side’ of our body that we do not observe — the neglected side; that which is in darkness.” His symbolism united the body with natural elements.

Bess figured that the color red represents the male element while white represents the female element. The pink of the oval on the flipside of the horizon denotes hermaphroditism. The oval represents an orifice, yet it’s not a hole in its flat materialism. This duality connects elements of both genders in a way that supports his theory.

Claire Elliot, organizer of the exhibition, claimed that the retrospective is timely given modern ideas about homosexuality and body modifications. But there’s a certain timelessness to uncovering the workings of the mind, which Bess did so idiosyncratically and compellingly.

“Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible” is on display at the Berkeley Art Museum until Sept. 14.


Contact Caitlin Kelley at [email protected].