“Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest” at the Oakland Museum of California

by admin on May 8, 2017

Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest now on view at the Oakland Museum of California is the Bay Area artist’s first full retrospective. Including over 50 paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the Museum’s own collection and from the SFMOMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art (where De Forest had a mid-career survey), and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Of Dogs and Other People illustrates this artist’s notable contributions to the local arts as a pioneer of the genre often called Funk art, or Nut art as De Forest himself coined it, within the Bay Area and California in the 1960s, a movement that included Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, and Viola Frey. Among his own personal accomplishments and achievements, De Forest’s exhibit also relates how this movement and his work would later influence each following generation of artists who, like the folk and ‘outsider’ artists that preceded, would find success through a kind of personal expression without necessarily any academic training, filling canvases and drawings with a visual language that could be read and appreciated by a wide public, not only the art elite.

De Forest’s originality and innovation lie in the seemingly random amalgamation of his own personal visual vocabulary, including pets and wild animals, self-portraits, and landscapes of his immediate surroundings around his Port Costa home and his travels to the Amazon, to art historical references from Picasso’s modern, abstracted head images to the dot style work of indigenous Australian art. The exhibition’s guest curator Susan Landauer, chief curator of the San Jose Museum of Art divides the exhibition among gallery spaces with subtitles such as “Horse of a Different Color,” “Down the Rabbit Hole,” and “All Aboard Down the River” to one of the final galleries header a more macabre heading, “Heart of Darkness.” Bookending with such subtitles that will recall both the 19th century fairy tale, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness about the atrocities of the Belgian Congo, evinces how light and comical to deeply solemn De Forest’s subject matter and approaches to art-making were. Where these two disparate book references also meet are the supernatural worlds created in the pages, which is also where De Forest’s work will meet them, too. His paintings offer a ‘slice of life’ look into a surrealist existence. Anthropomorphized dogs and animals are covered in multicolored fur and a cheshire cat like smiles and glowing eyes, while the people, who are frequently exaggerated and sensationalized in color, size, and pattern, rest in a landscape of extraordinarily-colored flora and fauna.

Where the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibitions regularly excel is the institution’s consistent focus on implementing as many opportunities for audiences to engage with the work through active learning and hands-on participation within the galleries. Of Dogs and Other People is certainly not an exception. Whereas in many museums a multimedia guide might hang like an optional accessory adjacent to the opening of an exhibition for an additional $2 to $5, the Oakland Museum of California has always made learning about the work on view an integral part of a complete experience, while ensuring it is fun and inventive. A creative “imaginary worlds” hands-on space in the beginning of the galleries invites visitors (not just kids!) to manipulate felt patterns and shapes inspired by the art. Throughout the exhibition, four comfortable listening stations play informative recordings, but not from a curator, nor any kind of arts professional. Viewers hear a dog trainer’s original perspective in front of De Forest’s Country Dog Gentlemen, and more original perspectives follow, like a sword swallower and a dream analyst — adding multiple layers to the environment created by the artist’s colorful and whimsical work. Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest at Oakland Museum of California provides an enchanting, immersive experience that brings viewers into the entirety of the uniquely of wondrous and strange world created by the artist and enjoyed by many.


The exhibition will be on view in the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street through August 20, 2017.