THERE ARE THREE Joe Forkans in the painting "Time Lapse (Joe)" at DC Harris Gallery. The Joe at left is a Fauvist, his face painted in bold red, brown, yellow and green, each brush stroke distinct and separate. The cacophony of unblended colors is a fine analogue to the emotions suggested by the scowling face.
Middle Joe is more modulated. Still painted in strange unflesh-like colors, in olives and pinks, this portrait comes a little closer to reality, or at least closer to the conventional artifice of portrait painting. The paints are blended into each other, creating a face that's softer, less edgy. Call this Joe Impressionist.
The final Joe, my favorite, is so muted he's fading away. Painted in the sepia tones of old photographs and barely remembered memories, this Joe is in oils that are thin and diluted. No brush strokes are visible: the brush simply pooled the oils, cut with medium, onto the board. He's been scratched out too, with white marks creating surface interest on a face that's so serious it has the look of despair. He must be the post-modern Joe, borrowing on the past to create a harrowing face of the present.
All by themselves, the three faces of Joe in "Time Lapse (Joe)" serve as a key to this major Forkan exhibition, called Substance and Shadow, providing a rundown of all the styles that the painter is trying on. Several dozen paintings and monoprints line the narrow exhibition room of the downtown gallery. (Gallery owner Daryl Childs reports that there are just as many back in the studio of this prolific artist.) Though Forkan is a modern young man -- his daring illustrations appear regularly in the Tucson Weekly and other publications -- his show has an old-fashioned air. Here is a painter who treats his materials, and the whole notion of art, with reverence. And he sticks to narrative subjects in the time-honored genres of figure, portrait and landscape. (The only traditional category he's missing is still life. New genre artist Herb Stratford makes amends for the lapse with his Assemblages, mysterious found-object boxes, modified with colored latexes, positioned in between the paintings on pedestals.)
For a long time, as Forkan says in his artists' statement and as his numerous gallery shows around town have borne witness, he's been working the field of memory, painting haunting pictures drawn from old photos. He's still doing those, as the sepia Joe proves. Besides the self-portrait, there are elusive pictures of blurry men and women dressed in old-fashioned brown jackets or antique cloche hats. These images have a wonderful elegiac quality. A line of men in 1940s togs leans against a building; a plump woman in her Sunday best stands in a field, an old-model car scarring the grass behind her. These heartbreaking figures are dim and distant, the ephemeral remains of people who have disappeared into death.
Lately, though, Forkan says, he's decided to pull himself back to the present by working with live models. And here's where the new painting styles come in. He's made deft nudes, such as "Reclining Woman," an energetic full-fledged painting completed in just four hours, according to the admiring Childs. She's realistic enough to be anatomically accurate, but painted wildly enough to be Fauvist. Quick, deliberate brush strokes of brown, yellow and orange occupy the surface of the panel, each stroke distinct, with a life of its own. A misty seascape, "The Rumor of the Ocean," is a thinly painted oil on panel, its lovely blue and green tones making it a contender in the Impressionist mode. It's loose and deft, with small figures almost merged with the beauties of ocean and sky.
There's no question that Forkan is a painter of great gifts, and it's wholly admirable that he's experimenting with new styles. Still, his moodily sepia paintings evoking the past remain his best works. They're more distinct, more original, than any of the more recent forays.
NEXT DOOR AT Raw Gallery, another energetic young painter, George E. Huffman, has mounted a one-man show for himself. Though his suite of six paintings assays a serious subject, the traumas of childhood, the paintings are nevertheless more lighthearted than the serious Forkans. The Highfield Diaries, named after Huffman's Pennsylvania elementary school, chronicle the hijinks of George and a cast of characters that include his big brother Joey, big sister Chris and best friend Beaver. But there's not much in the way of straight narrative here. These jazzy paintings, full of thick, swirling bursts of paint and loose black line drawings, are expressionist extravaganzas loaded with strange symbols.
Huffman usually portrays his younger self as a bug-like creature with a tiny faceless head, big brown body and spindly black stick arms and legs, a little-kid kind of drawing that links the mature artist to his childhood self. Joey, for reasons best known to Huffman intimates, mostly is painted as a giant red strawberry head. Big Sis is a towering giant. In "Heidi Bit Joey Once," the terrible tragedy of the family pet biting Joey is rendered cheerfully. The blue-black dog levitates toward Strawberry Joey, her fierce jaws ready for a nice big chomp. Traumatized little brother George is tumbling head-first out of a tree, unhinged by the apparent impending loss of his closest sib. Huffman the grown-up painter uses the background of this childhood calamity as an open invitation to revel in his paints, laying thick pale yellows and pinks on the canvas. By contrast, the figures are flatly and bluntly painted.
Other melancholy events given happy new life in paint are Huffman's disastrous performance as John Wilkes Boothe in a fourth-grade play ("Because God Made Me Do It"); an angry motorist's chase of the boys after they dropped apples on his vehicle from an overpass ("Whippin' Apples at Cars"), and the sad occasion on which "Beaver Stepped on a Bunny," the only work on paper in the show. Huffman, whose day job is as graphic designer at the Tucson Weekly, has achieved a happy closure to these misfortunes in his lively paintings bursting with color. When last seen, he was ruminating delightedly over a newly recovered memory: the time he smashed the glass door with his arm and got scars that he still has to prove it.
Substance and Shadow: Recent Paintings and Monotypes, by Joe Forkan; and Assemblages, by Herb Stratford, continue through March 5 at the DC Harris Gallery, 41 S. Sixth Ave. Gallery hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and during Thursday Art Walks and Downtown Saturday Nights. For information, call 629-9446.
The Highfield Diaries, paintings by George E. Huffman, continues through March 4 at Raw Gallery, 43 S. Sixth Ave. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and during Downtown Saturday Nights. For more information, call 882-6927.