States of Mind: Scooter LaForge Paints Cross-Country
Scooter LaForge: Travels with Johnny at Munch Gallery
January 29 to March 8, 2015
245 Broome Street (at Ludlow St.)
New York, 212 228 1600
New York-based artist Scooter LaForge paints his subjects — among them floral arrangements, marvelous creatures, fairytale vignettes, friends and pop cultural motifs — with a fluidity and generosity that beguiles. Through his technicolored cornucopias run an honesty and vibratory sense of celebration that make the paintings seem as much invitations to the viewer to experience his world, as they are artworks. Yet his engagement with darker matter, the gleeful macabre, as well as the depth of sentiment in the faces of his sitters, positions him as a soulful chronicler of emotive gravitas.
The theme of “Travels with Johnny,” his second solo exhibition with Munch Gallery, is a 2013 journey by road across the United States, for which LaForge was joined by his friend, the photographer Johnny Rozsa, and Rozsa’s three dogs. Initially recording scenes that appealed to him through photographs and sketches made during the trip, the artist continued work over the last year and a half on the 15 pieces shown here, all of which were completed in 2014.
Such trips in the United States often impress because of the romantic vastness of the country — an elusive experience to relay in any medium. Ironically, LaForge conveys such melancholy grandeur in several works through surprisingly intimate details and by suggesting less the landscape itself, but rather the sobering perspective, and the brevity, of our lives within it. Road Side Memorial With Virgin Mary (Bisbee, AZ), Black Spider Web, and Bullet Hole in Window, each depict modestly scaled remains of emotionally resonant events which might have remained unnoticed on such an expedition were it not for LaForge’s near-gnostic observational humility. This is effective far beyond so many impoverished press releases that futilely try to convince us that an artist has — often through folly and enormity — evoked the sublime.
Unanimity with the great thrum of nature emanates from Self Portrait Yellow and Self Portrait Pink, which employ closely cropped background environments of trees, sky, and ground, the former during the day, and the latter, at night. This compositional device increases the viewer’s proximity and (allied with a riotous palette of pinks, greens and blues that present the natural and the human in similar tones) reflects each in the other as symbiotic parts of the cosmos. The impact of this immense individual experience is realized then by LaForge’s deftness with his subject, rendering unnecessary the need to illustrate any physical greatness through which he traveled. The human within the natural world is a topic further explored in a picture of the artist’s niece, Dausi in a Field of Flowers. Here the scene is more expansive, with the blue sky and meadow joining at the horizon. There is a transcendental quality within the breezy lightness of this work, its floral plain hinting at more than the merely earthbound, and a reference perhaps to a charged familial reunion that occurred during the trip, an acknowledgment of the poignancy and passage of time.
Bear and Roadside Tornado conjures elemental foreboding with its livid black, pink and pale yellows as symbols of meteorological power loom in the form of lightning, roiling skies and a twister. In the center, between a large bear and the tornado, a road stretches into the distant fire of the horizon. This work, considered along with a smaller painting, Mystery Machine in the Middle of Moab Desert, Utah, illustrates a darkly carnivalesque aspect of LaForge’s oeuvre. The title refers to the van used by Scooby-Doo and his friends, while reminding us of the artist’s own canine companions. Bear and Roadside Tornado calls to mind the mounting suspense of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes (1962), wherein calamitous atmospheric conditions presage the characters’ travails. Taken with the lighter touch of the Mystery Machine’s intrepid gang of animated adventurers, LaForge might be regarded here as an enigmatic Jim Nightshade, the investigative protagonist of his own alluring traveling show; the evolving landscapes reflecting shifts between light and gloom within us all.
While many people today would present such an odyssey through heavily edited social media accounts, culling only the most advantageous shots, LaForge has kept a different kind of diary, one refreshingly emancipated from the anxious shackling of posts and likes. He transmits instances of uncontrived beauty and introspection that require no shoehorning of contextual meaning to buttress the work’s relevance, the hallmark of so much pedestrian painting today. Such openness of heart and intuitive choice of imagery are rare and even courageous traits in an often-cynical art world, and through LaForge, they underpin the veracity of this exhibition.