I first saw this artist at the BP Portrait Award 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery this summer. I was struck by Forte’s technique of layering the paint (in gradually thick layers) onto the canvas. Leaving parts of the canvas quite bare, so early layers can be see, and to the right of the figure’s head – you can see a patch of the bare canvas.

This painting really stayed with me, hence why I want to look at a few of her pieces for this project.

Felicia Forte
Time Traveller, Matthew Napping, oil on canvas, 72″x72″

From the BP Portrait Award 2018 website:

Time Traveller, Matthew Napping finds Forte’s sweetheart Matthew DeJong asleep on a sweltering summer’s day in Detroit. Forte says she was struck by the beautiful contrasts in the scene – the ‘cool light from the window meeting intense red light from the bedside lamp and the loneliness of the sleeper amidst the festive colours.’ The portrait was the culmination of a body of new work made in residence summer 2017 at Redbull House of Art in Detroit.

I think it was the loneliness of the piece that made this painting so vivid in my memory. The saturated colours fit with a fuller-than-life image. But the reality is a lonely napping figure, and this contrast between colour palette and content makes for an intense portrait.

The size of the canvas makes the feeling of loneliness stronger because there is literally a lot of ’empty’ canvas surrounding the viewer. The fact that the room is abstracted and objects are reduced to blocks and gradients of colour really helps to capture this feeling of emptiness; if the objects were detailed and realistic, the figure would I think look more grounded in the image, and surrounded by objects that fill the space around him. This would mean the feeling of loneliness wouldn’t be nearly as strong?

Felicia Forte
Private Eye, oil on canvas, 36″x60″

This painting Private Eye is similar to Time Traveller, Matthew Napping. The difference is that the objects and the room surrounding the figure are more detailed, and of course the viewer is looking through a door frame into the bedroom, instead of being in the room with the figure.

I have looked closely at how doors/windows change the dynamic of a painting in the past, and my conclusions were they disconnect the viewer from the scene through the opening, and remind them of their distance from a scene. So a door/window can be used in a composition to detach the viewer from a scene and make them feel as if they are looking through into a private scene. I think this theory applies here. As the viewer we are peering into a quiet, personal moment.

It’s interesting what Forte says in her artists statement:

[I’m] searching for a moment when the least amount of detail meets the truth of my subject… In the essentialist space of my work there is room for others to experience their own reality.

You can see this intention in Forte’s work. The choice to leave the face featureless and not include any objects in the room that appear personal to the artist or subject.

This idea of allowing the viewer to apply their own narrative / emotion to the piece works really well, it’s something that has interested me in this project (referring to the Art as Therapy book), and why this painting made such an impression on me when I saw it  exhibited.

Most of Fortes work may draw on the same ideas, but have a very different subject matter:

The bottom painting of the lamp is worth including because one really gets a sense of the painterly quality of her work. You can see the way she layers colour. Was this lamp painting a ‘practice’ piece for the larger work I looked at above that included the same lamp and striped wallpaper?

That might be something to consider: painting pieces that focus on objects in the room before going in on a big canvas with the whole scene. This might help to work out composition and light before stitching it all together.

More on how this relates to my own work: 

There are a lot of parallels between Forte’s work and the intentions of my own. Aspects of her work such as the scale of the canvas, and the way she simplifies and abstracts the subjects are ideas that had already been forming in my mind, but are just strengthened with this example of an artist who is applying these ideas very successfully.

I want to make sure I am not too influenced by Forte, and my work draws too many parallels with her work! If that’s possible?! More experimenting will reveal that.

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