Steal this art

John Yoyogi Fortes

Artist John Yoyogi Fortes is much like his work, likeable and optimistic.

Artist John Yoyogi Fortes is much like his work, likeable and optimistic.

Photo By Chad Sorg

His dark-rimmed, square-ish glasses make him smart-looking but not too smart-looking. He’s approachable. He smiles a lot—he beams, really—like a new daddy, which he is. Little baby girl Coco in his arms, John Yoyogi Fortes, mixed-media artist from Vallejo, Calif., seems prone to reflecting on the simple moments in life—and the unpredictable. In short, he’s optimistic and likable, and his art at Grayspace is the same.

Fortes’ show is teeming with unpretentious renditions of happy cartoon characters inhabiting center stage with sampled compositions that remind the viewer of Nickelodeon or maybe certain punk album covers, also buffed-over graffiti. Colors peek out from corners, layers of paint and scribble with poofs of opaque creamies, brushed on and curvy text brackets, lobbed tree trunks and shoes—all painted like a drunken sign painter—often sanded and scuffed back off.

It’s these mistakes and re-dos that are visually most attractive. The look is faux-naïveté. In other words, it’s simple/scratchy/scrubby and with the appearance of not giving a crap about conventions like composition or technique.

It’s funny how rough and disjointed art like this could look friendly, but it does. It’s like the art world has relaxed its expectations of gallery viewers, and the days of highly “challenging” work is a thing of the past. Look at Michael Sarich’s bright and cartoony “Like Love Lust” at the Nevada Museum of Art.

There are points of comparison between Sarich’s and Fortes’ work, and Fortes pointed out some similarities during a sauntering interview at the museum.

Some of Sarich’s former UNR students, Evan Dent and Gabe Toci, were also at NMA. They were there for the Art Bite series, talking about, among other things, Sarich’s re-use of iconic symbols. Sarich’s paintings feature swastikas and stigmata, also Wal-Mart-ish smiley faces and that over-popularized mouse with the big round ears, the one originally drawn by a man named Walt.

While Sarich’s symbolism flat-out steals, Fortes prefers to be slyer with the “dark comedy” of his own conglomerate creatures.

But the more I look at Fortes’ work, the more things look familiar. A vague reminder of Ren and Stimpy lingers, and Fortes mentions influences of “Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth’s Rat Fink and the creatures of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse cartoonist Gary Panter and also Mad Magazine.”

In another drawing, there’s a kind of hot-rod monster pulling out someone’s teeth. Occasionally, you’ll see butts that excrete empty thought bubbles or bulging eyes flying from lumpy heads. He mentions that he’s seen his tree stumps painted somewhere else before, which sparks a discussion of collective consciousness.

One of Fortes’ creatures has a hole in his neck from which he smokes his stogie. Fortes says he basically lifted this image from a drawing his son did years ago. Over the smoking creature’s head hovers the ornate but scrawly text, “Jinx.” I had to buy it—a hundred bucks.

The artist also says that stuff on eBay and new technology give him subject matter to work with, as well. OK, so maybe these images are not entirely his own. Fortes terms it, “shared iconography.”

Good news: Today’s high art is allowed to recycle, and there are lots of cartoon speech bubbles that say nothing.