New York-based painter Scooter LaForge eschews the rites of passage predestined by the art world machinery of graduate programs, sanctioned residencies, and gallery hierarchy, in favor of an intuitive, exploratory approach. His decades-long career spans art, fashion and architecture—his ideas applied to canvas, clothing, buildings, and objects—and despite developing supportive networks and collaborations with ideological compatriots across these creative fields, he remains unattached to any one group. LaForge, then, offers a refreshing note to artists determined to make it among the often-maddening expectations of the congealed status quo. He has developed a palette and style that he is becoming increasingly known for and is an underrated, agile commentator for our worrisome times. Yet—while the artist himself remains unconcerned—his career has flourished without the backing of the Chelsea system that so many consider important.
Dausi in a Field of Flowers, 2014. Images courtesy of the artist and Theodore:Art, Brooklyn
Does such diversity within a practice cause a lack of serious academic interest? As is also the case with artists who write or curate, is there a perception that LaForge’s situation between the fashion and art worlds is too divested for narrow cultural appetites? Does the joie de vivre, kitsch, or camp of his riotous imagery discourage elucidation of its values and profounder meanings? In time, it didn’t for Jean DeBuffet, Keith Haring, Joyce Pensato, or KAWS, among others. The position of artists as societal non-conformists and avant-garde thinkers, peripherals to the majority, who can usher in new thinking has been almost professionalized out of existence by art school cultism and gallery brand orchestrators, operating as if whatever their ArtRankedTM practitioners spew from their studios is important rather than merely well funded. Investment in artistic prerogative—authentic visional response to life about us—is often suppressed by hackneyed trends sponsored by the business interests of art’s seal-of-approval assembly line. LaForge matters because despite these hampering forces, he is proof that a strong presence founded on creative insight and emotional honesty can be achieved; because he is representative of the many unknown artists in New York and elsewhere toiling so hard; and because his work speaks with cogency, intelligence, and accessibility to our eternal preoccupations: life, death, loss, happiness, anxiety.
LaForge’s individualist inclinations began early during his upbringing in New Mexico, exposed to the vistas, skies, and Native American mythologies of the region—elements of which can be seen throughout his practice, in symbolic and esoteric works such as Totem (2017). Later, in San Francisco and then on the East Coast, via the hopes and challenges inherent in personal and queer experience, LaForge’s track of self-discovery over formalism was deepened. Today he lives in the East Village and works both internationally and out of his Tribeca studio—perhaps one of the last who could be considered living and working within the spirit of the legendary 70s and 80s downtown scene.
Totem, 2017. Installation view of at Everything is Going to be OK at Theodore:Art, Brooklyn
Criminally ill-considered in reviews of his work is the fact that LaForge is a painter of refined empathetic capacity, particularly regarding the natural world and the self in relation to it. This is conveyed through various motifs, principally a lone figure, sometimes biographical, other times indicative of us all. His heroes are often between, or representative of, safety and danger, balancing the wonderment of existence with melancholy and dread. Their desolate or majestic surroundings speak to locations once visited, or longed for, in what might be considered the brevity of place, physical or psychological.
LaForge’s oeuvre includes kaleidoscopic cavalcades of fantastic creatures, frolicsome grotesques and gleeful nether-worldly denizens. They are of magical realms consonant with those of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” or the Goblin Hall of Hugh de Giffard’s Yester Castle. While LaForge’s grimacing clowns and grinning elves can be giddily celebratory, they speak also to the fearsome consequences of temptation, avarice, and envy found in fairytales and fables from antiquity to the Brothers Grimm, manifested in millennia of allegorical specters and apparitions, ever-relevant to human behavior.
Blue Skeleton with Pink Balloon, 2011
In Blue Skeleton with Pink Balloon (2011), the protagonist stalks through a blaze of gold and pink flowers, holding a cat-faced balloon, as a Pied Piper of false promise. The cycle of life and death is further noted by a bee flitting among the buds, yet foreboding inflects the otherwise seductive scene. This painting claims ancestry from “Danse Macabre” particularly Robert Montenegro Nervo’s (1885-1968) Allegory of Death (1909) and the work of James Ensor (1860–1949). Another LaForge work Skeleton Autopsy (2012) wryly turns the screws on this genre, suggesting perhaps the demise of death itself. In fact, when one considers the lies, fomented hatreds, and sickening administrative acts currently being perpetrated from racist gerrymandering to attacks on gay rights, there seems a prescience in the arc of LaForge’s saturnalias. LaForge’s darkly carnivalesque world—populated by the likes of Happy Skull (2016) and Devil and Witch Sticks (2015)—knocks the masks askew from these charismatic rogues, registering in them a sinisterness reflective of our cultural schisms, and the astonishing political leaders that have risen to power.
Bear and Roadside Tornado, 2014
In a more ruminative mood, a suite of paintings made during and after a November 2013 road trip across the southwest highlights the artist’s interest in natural marvels. The most potent is Bear and Roadside Tornado (2014), wherein a highway cuts through a wuthering landscape towards an enflamed horizon, the air crackling with the charge of lightning. A deathly face peers from a black-purplish sky, and an impenetrable tornado barrels across the scene. All is cinematically tossed and turbulent. A massive bear towers over the road, peering over its shoulder at the viewer, daring him to pass. This is the unfettered power of land and sky in wild, threatening abandon.
Through his lexicon of vibrant characters— clowns, flowers, stars, rainbows, skulls, animals, birds and playing cards—LaForge traverses the joyful and the sorrowful. In Drippy Mouse (2016) Mickey Mouse stands coquettishly as his likeness melts and slides before him. It cites the playful insistence of childhood, and positivity against the baleful loss of innocence that adulthood ushers. There are similar inflections of youth and age in the bleak sadness of Pigeon Funeral (2004) in which 2 birds perch on a branch, holding wreaths of flowers above the lifeless body of a feathered friend, set against a yawning peach sky and distant mountains. In his recent exhibition, Everything is Going to be OK at Theodore:Art, among Snow White’s cavorting dwarves and uproarious colors, was a memorial to the recently deceased artist, writer, and curator, Walt Cessna—whom LaForge considered a brother as well as a collaborator. With flowers set over his image, LaForge’s mourning pigeons found companionship in the artist’s reality.
Drippy Mouse, 2016
In subject, LaForge’s practice weaves through centuries of canonical tendencies from the devilish iconography of Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516), Daniel Hopfer (1470–1536), and the caricatures of George Cruikshank (1792–1878), to the tortured expressionism of Edvard Munch (1863–1944). LaForge’s Dunceman Says “Fuck Yale” (2003) depicts a bright orange-clad figure with either several heads or one, vigorously shaking. The body language is tight, as if strait-jacketed and attempting to free itself. It is a profoundly agitated painting born from a seminal moment of realization in LaForge’s life. There is humor in the contortion, yet it draws something of the eviscerating horror of Francis Bacon’s Head VI (1949).
Golden Shower Bear, 2009
There are further threads through Johann Elias Ridinger’s (1698–1767) Instructive Fables From the Animal Kingdom for Improvement of Manners and Especially for the Instruction of Youth etchings, particularly the bacchanal Drunkenness Leads to Foolishness, where a weasel outwits a bear at a forest party—such mirthful anthropomorphic notions are saucily augmented, and perhaps corrupted, in LaForge’s Golden Shower Bear (2009)—and on through Francisco Goya, Otto Dix, and Paul McCarthy. Stylistically, there exists a kinship with the pop sensibilities of New York artists Richard Francis Hoffman (1954–94), Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–88), and Kenny Scharf (1958-).
The eroticism of man’s fellowship with Earthly rapture is explored in Sunset (2012) wherein a young male, wearing sports socks and a t-shirt performs autofellatio on a lakeside bed of rushes. The man’s flicking tongue, the Eden-like quality of the scene, and the mirroring water reference immemorial tales from original sin to Narcissus. In similar vein, the 2008 work Bluebird of Happiness depicts a nighttime, oral sex encounter between two men on woodland, floral ground. They are naked but for the bird atop the giver’s head. Casper David Friedrich’s autobiographical, Two Men Contemplating the Moon (c.1825–30) did not so explicitly imagine man’s subsumption within wood and open air.
Implicit in the aforementioned historical forebears is, perhaps, a particular propensity drawn from LaForge’s personal journey, subjective interests, and sociological affinities that forms the underpinning of his practice. LaForge’s distinctiveness, his selfness, his simpatico with the cultural life of New York’s queer-art commonwealth is reminiscent of the halcyon 80s scene, a rougher urban terrain more conducive to local characters, artistic prospecting, and community. Such qualities in combination with the gritty credo of his imagery—quartered at the junctions of exaltation and suffering, communion and alone-ness, macrocosm and man—suggest a convincing association.
Self Portrait Pink, 2013
Romanticism’s tenets were the preeminence of emotivity: the individual pitched against storm or internal conflict, the empirical, imaginative and reflective. Of special importance was the glorification of nature, the isolated, distant or wild—and the figure within it—even to the extent of awe and terror. Mythologies, lore, occultism, the supernatural, the valorous, and the sublime were all ascendant drivers over the rigid order of science or Classicism. LaForge then, can be considered an unabashed proponent of that great unrestrained movement. He is a vivid conjurer of art’s long story, and an example of the myriad possibilities and successes that dexterous artists can avail themselves of today if they can navigate the constricting dos and don’ts that hobble career-related decision-making over how they will be perceived. While he is a painter of molten aptitude and moxie, he also transcends any fixed markers of what that implies through his generous embrace of mediums, formats, and platforms with which to disseminate his output. In our digitally superficial epoch, where art is seen rather than viewed, and discarded instantaneously—much of it appropriately so—LaForge proves that unyielding commitment, critical perceptiveness, and integrity can ignite careers, and sustain interest in our more substantive societal chroniclers.
Darren Jones is a Scottish, US-based critic and artist. His new book, with David Carrier, The Contemporary Art Gallery: Display, Power and Privilege, is available now.
(Image at top: Skeleton Autopsy, 2012. All images courtesy of the artist and Theodore:Art, Brooklyn.)