Hazy Shade of Winter

Seth Michael Forman: Snow
Frosch&Portmann Gallery, NYC
Through March 6, 2011
 
The timing of Seth Michael Forman's exhibition at Frosch&Portman could not have been more fortuitous, coming as it does in the middle of a seemingly endless winter. In contrast to our daily encounters with urban snow -- that blackened, dirty, slushy stuff -- Forman’s pristine crystals seem a relief.
 
Through Forman's paintings we are transported to an eerie, isolated landscape of the Northern Exposure variety. A strange cast of woodland kings and Twin Peaks Log Ladies might be illustrations of what Paul Celan, addressing the work of Georg Buchner, wrote:
"Going beyond what is human, stepping into a reality which is turned toward the heaven, but [is] uncanny -- the realm where the monkey, the automatons, and with them…[all] seem at home."
 
Indeed, Forman's cast seems oddly comfortable in their outdoor habitat. A series of three small panels depict frost-bitten youths making snow angels and frolicking pantless in the drifts. The Log Lady stands stock-still, holding a large branch which resembles Gabriel’s horn. In "King in Winter" (2006) a red-robed and crowned man carries a dead dear up an embankment -- either back from the hunt or toward a sacrificial alter. The desolate landscape offers us no clues. In spite of the disaffected sense we have of the inhabitants, or perhaps because our attention wanders across the picture plane, we apprehend the atmospheric elements with greater attention. Snow, rendered with an almost cocaine precision, dominates these works. Snowflakes, sometimes thisclose together, sometimes this   far   apart.
 
A series of three black and white drawings, carefully sequestered in the back of the gallery prove intriguingly problematic. A well-hung black dude who looks kind of like Omar Epps, well, kind of, bathes in a drift of powdery white stuff. The images lack the richness of the environment to flesh out the story. We are left perched on the veritable horns of a visual dilemma: is this a study for a more fully realized painting? Or are these little gems meant to tweak? Black guys frolick in the snow (clothed) in the paintings, yet when yanked from the scenery this drift of white stuff combined with the soft-core apprehension of the figure leads us to think of snow as a metaphor. Rolling, tweaking, or well-sorted, you provide the background. If this is a weakness in the conceptual backing of the work, then it is one which points to the strength of the more fully developed paintings.
 
In other words, through the application of little specks of titanium white pigment we are drawn into this frosty world and convinced of its space. In recent memory only John Currin’s painting "Hobo" (2000) has realized the full potential of depicting this element of nature, transforming through vision the sense of touc -- the white dots make us feel the chill of the landscape more fully.
 
Leon Battista Alberti wrote:
"I like there to be someone in [a painting] who tells the spectators what is going on, and either beckons them with his hand to look or with a ferocious expression and forbidding glance challenges them to come near…or points to some dangerous or remarkable thing."
Forman plays an interesting game in these works. He draws us into his landscapes yet we are confronted with a variety of strange and impenetrable (and possibly dangerous) beings. They seem as frozen in motion as the snow they stand in; saying that a work of art leaves us cold is usually not a compliment, but here it might not be such a bad description. His weird characters may not actually beckon us to join them, but he convinces us through paint that this world exists somewhere. And that is pretty cool. - Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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