Forrest Kirk: Lightning Strikes and Other Stories

Forrest Kirk, Photo credit Gary Brewer

Forrest Kirk: Lightning Strikes and Other Stories

LOS Angeles

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

James Baldwin

Written by Gary Brewer
Images tell stories. An iconic image can convey layers of history and meaning. A clenched fist symbolizes unity, strength, and resistance. Its use and context has reflected different causes over the years but it captures the desire for basic human rights for all.

Painting is a subtle and profound medium that expresses the spirit of the times in which an artist lives and how that artist responds to the world they inhabit. It is a nerve-sensitive medium; it records the elusive threads of an artist’s subjective universe and encodes them into the matter of pigment. The surface of a painting becomes a palimpsest of the thoughts and feelings that pass through the artist’s consciousness in the process of creation.

When I dropped by Forrest Kirk’s studio in West Hollywood, an apartment that is within walking distance from his home, he told me that it worked well for him. He needed to be close to home to take care of his kids, and that he had everything he needed if he wanted to work all night. His large paintings covered the walls, his paints and brushes occupied the floor and good natural light filled the space.

I asked Forrest what he is trying to do with his paintings, he replied, “I am trying to change the world. There are many conversations that need to be had, and in my paintings I engage people with difficult subjects. I also want my paintings to be joyous- the composition and symmetry, the balance of positive and negative space, the rich surfaces and colors. But at the same time, there are many layers to my work. You can enjoy them as just a good painting or you can dig deeper. I want my paintings to express the joy of having a child or the sorrow of the death of your father, the hardship of losing a job and the joy I feel in painting. I think about my work like the music of Public Enemy, with Chuck D and Flavor Flav creating songs you could dance to, but when you listened carefully and went deeper into their lyrics, they were educating you- communicating the experience of black people in America and the history of racism and slavery. I want my paintings to contain all of my experiences.”

Forrest has two different approaches to painting: in one he freely begins a painting with a gesture or an image without a particular narrative- just a starting point from which he can react to- one mark or image suggesting another. He freely adds and subtracts along the way, leaving a rich record of the process of discovery. There is an embrace of ambiguity and a fractured narrative of images and elements that oscillate between being pure brushstrokes or gestures, and also suggesting an image. He can find a face or a figure or some objects in a passage of pure painting and that will lead his work into a new direction.

In another approach that he refers to as a “lightning-strike,” Forrest says, “In my work I respond to what is going on around me in the world. When George Floyd was killed by the police, I responded to it by creating a series of paintings that dealt with racism and the police killings of black people. In 2020 when the corona virus shut down the world, I had time to create some work that had been on my mind but I had been too busy making work for different shows. I had several ideas but the clenched fist paintings were the series I wanted to develop. I had already made a few, but I was still figuring out how to make them work. I started working on these paintings. Then the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed happened- it really affected me deeply. It was the lightning strike, where the paintings became laser focused on this moment in time. During the protests, hundreds of people were marching down Burton St. right outside of my studio window. I had a stack of my Fist paintings leaning against the window, so I put one out on the balcony for the protesters coming down the street to see. When people saw it they cheered and held their clenched fists up in the air. It was a very powerful moment for me. The fist is not just about the rights of black people, but about human rights: women’s rights, gay rights, and transgender rights. It is a symbol that represents all of the different struggles of oppressed people.”

Forrest’s paintings have a raw, visceral intensity. Many of them exist in an ambiguous space, with a complex interplay of figure and ground. Silhouette-like forms act as a figure, but within them is a rich interplay of lush surface techniques: from gestural brush strokes to Gerhard Richter-like pulls of paint. The figure is simultaneously a space within which many dramas unfold. These complex interplays are a formal invention that allows the multitude of layers of meaning and narrative that Forrest is expressing, to unfold in complex spaces. His backgrounds are often grays or browns, whose flat inert neutrality anchor and empower the rich painterly passages going on within the forms.

There is a deliberate naivety to many of his images: it gives them a blunt and direct power and allows them to easily fluctuate between abstract gesture and image. In many paintings there is an irrational logic that defines Forrest’s approach, a kind of exquisite corpse painting- but played in solitude. Each passage leads his imagination to link it to what comes to mind: he is always influenced by events in his life and the world. He often employs a simple depiction of a bomb, which he says represents the ticking clock of time. One can also find a striped Bengal tiger wandering through these dense paintings. The tiger keeps the wild and free aspect of his consciousness alive, a reminder to stay close to the instinctual impulses that propel his paintings forward.

Other paintings are more focused on a specific subject, Forrest said about these works, “I am constantly reading, authors like James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and other black writers who speak directly to the experience of being black in America. When I read the title from Maya Angelou’s book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” it made me think, ‘what would that look like?’ So I created two paintings, one with a bird and one with a cage trying to visualize those feelings. Another painting that I made was in response to James Baldwin’s quote “If I am starving, you are in danger”. I made an image of a husband tied to a chair in his home, with a person holding a knife to his wife’s neck. When words by authors have a powerful effect on me, I want to translate those feelings into an image.”

There was a large six by nine foot painting titled AfroPhysics in the studio that Forrest had recently completed. When I asked him what he was thinking about when he made it, he mentioned the recent flight to space by billionaire businessmen Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, and simply said, “Where are the Black astronauts?” The painting is a rich assemblage of disparate elements. The use of gray to isolate various passages suggests an early Pollock painting where he would employ gray to isolate passages of spontaneous painting. In Forrest’s paintings he is utilizing lateral pulls of wet paint, linear elements, swirling brushstrokes, and then out of the chaos- finding a face or a figure and adding some details to make it more legible. A signature bomb sits in a field of blue with some kind of beast or wild animal striding through the landscape with a full moon above. The gray background’s inert chromatic quality is a counterpoint to the action taking place within each distinct island of emotions and ideas. This is a very complex painting. In Forrest’s masterful approach, he is able to resolve the friction of these contrasting elements into a singular gestalt. The resolve that he achieves in his paintings is a metaphor of seeking to face the challenges of being in our world and striving to transform it through his art. 

These are important paintings that communicate on multiple levels simultaneously. They fluidly shift from the pure sensual pleasure of painting, to emotionally and psychologically complex works. Forrest Kirk’s ambiguous narratives pull one deeper into a personal language, where the diaristic approach speaks directly from the heart. These records of his experiences are filled with the tragic realities of racism and the history of slavery but move forward into the power of creativity to shape a new future. It is a future he strives to create through his ambition to make paintings that can change the world.

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