From Arcimboldo to DeForest: Outsider Art and the Personification of Nature

“To create something that will be a mystery even unto myself.”

Roy DeForest’s comment could serve as a manifesto for the “outsider art” scene that he was a part of for more than forty years as a Bay area artist and UC Davis Professor Emeritus during the final decades of the 20th century. In a talk on February 24th, Matthew Weseley, a Research Associate in Art History at U.C. Davis, juxtaposed DeForest’s capricious artistic production with that of 16th century artist Guiseppe Arcimboldo, famous for his composite portraits that resemble still lifes made of fruits and vegetables.

According to Weseley, despite four centuries between them, the work of both artists reflects similar modes of personification and pantheism in their work, creatively mixing the human and the non-human. Evoking harmony and humor, DeForest and Arcimboldo were stylistically linked iconoclasts whose painterly production is nourished and inspired by the natural environment.

As many of his works make evident, DeForest was a dog-lover. One of his best-known paintings, on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, “Country Dog Gentlemen” strives for what the artist described as “a dog’s eye view of nature.” Indeed, looking at the work, one gets the feeling of peering up along a tree trunk while several mismatched canines expectantly—almost knowingly—return the viewer’s gaze.

With vibrant colors invoking energy and movement, his paintings are filled with surreal suggestions and dream imagery. DeForest once said, “The more stuff you can get in a painting, the better off you are.”

Weseley’s presentation included many images of often whimsical artworks by DeForest’s Bay area contemporaries—Shaw, Colescott, Gilhooly, Vandenberge and Arneson (yes, the egg-head artist). Weseley demonstrated the different ways these 20th-century Northern California artists, like their 16th century counterpart, turned their backs on contemporary aesthetics to find new configurations for their surroundings. Humanizing animals and everyday objects, they all embraced a folksy-yet-psychedelic mode of painting and sculpture.

Following Weseley’s talk, audience members in a packed lecture room considered some of the aesthetic contrasts they noticed between Bay area works and those originating on the East Coast. While the work of California artists in the 60s and 70s bears comparison to that of the Surrealists like Dali and 50s pop artists like Warhol, Bay area artists are distinguished by a distinctly humorous and playful distortion of popular culture imagery. Deforest’s wife and sister attended the event, and graciously shared their intimate perspectives on the artist and his aesthetics.

For more information on where to see works by DeForest and his contemporaries, visit