Tom Forsythe‘s Food Chain Barbie series taps into the twin currents of jaundice and hilarity that characterize his sometimes simple and sometimes maddeningly complex view of the world. In this series, the idealized commodity—Barbie—becomes our food, our nourishment. We blend, mix and confuse the ideal fantasy with the essence of our existence. Barbie may be only one of a great number of products contributing to a false sense of inadequacy, but in many ways, this product is the most potent single representation of the ubiquitous beauty myth. As a part of our cultural identity since being introduced in 1958, Barbie reveals the continuity of the commodity machine. In the same way, the doll retains its glazed, blissful smile regardless of its impending fate. While most of us at least start to grimace when we smell the heating oil that signals our demise, Barbie keeps a happy face courtesy of the image-makers who hope beyond hope that those of us on the receiving end will continue to do the same.
What started as a seemingly simple effort to create talismans to encourage people to recognize a banal product when they see one, turned into a nightmare of quite literally federal proportions when Mattel served Forsythe with a Federal lawsuit on August 24, 1999. Mattel sued Forsythe for displaying Barbie as the piece of plastic she really is rather than as the role model that Mattel has marketed. After 2 years of emotional turmoil, the US District court in Los Angeles granted Forsythe’s motion for summary judgement on August 13, 2001. Mattel is appealing the ruling and the expenses keep mounting, despite pro bono legal representation from the ACLU and Howard, Rice of San Francisco. While the lawsuit grinds through the courts, Forsythe continues to tweak the senses.
As a successor to the Food Chain Barbie series, Forsythe is making his Personal Illusions series of photographic portraits. These 20×30 inch Lambda prints result from collaborative photo sessions where Forsythe takes his subjects into his studio with props, costumes or just attitudes that they think define how the world sees them—or how they would like to be seen. He then distorts the images and photographs the distortion. It’s a real world distortion, not a computer manipulation, designed to reveal the inevitable distortion everyone faces even if they try their best to honestly face the world. Personal Illusions alternately reveals a multiplicity of images, a blending of edges and some distinctively clear insights.
While still photography makes up the bulk of Forsythe’s artistic milieu, he has continued to work on parallel projects that reflect his Taoist inspired philosophy of going with the flow. His Healing Vision series of relaxation videos (www.healingvision.com) is meant to act as an antidote for the frenzy of modern existence. These slowly edited scenes of nature in motion provide a meditative background that can enhance or induce the relaxing states that we all need to enjoy inner peace.
Forsythe’s ability to express from his gut can be seen as one of the fruits of Tai Chi Chuan practice. Practicing this ‘meditation in motion’ helped him realize the difference between his true nature and the social influences that attempt to subsume that nature. It provided the confidence to trust his instincts, to accept his thoughts rather than analyzing them until they didn’t have a life of their own. One of the gems of Tai Chi Chuan practice—the physical manifestation of Taoist philosophy—is recognizing that we’re all products of our environment, that can’t escape it, but that we can laugh at it.
Some years ago, Forsythe traded a life of literal sensory overload in Los Angeles for the relative quiet of the country outside of Kanab, Utah where he enjoys the grandeur of the red rock and open expanses that surround him. In this environment, he can open his senses fully to experience the splendor of ronment that has not been developed to death.
Forsythe’s work has been juried into Illegal Art at 313 Gallery, In These Times, SFMOMA, Nexus Gallery; Through the Looking Glass at the Art Center at Fuller Lodge by Scheinbaum & Russek (reps for Eliot Porter’s estate); The Barrett House Galleries Photoworks ’98 by Lisa Dennison, Chief Curator and Deputy Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan; The Dishman Competition at Lamar University by James Yood of Northwestern University; This is the Place, MetroArts; Park City Art Festival, 1998/1999; Plaza Art Fair, 1998, and New Photography ’97 at lard Sheets Gallery, Los Angeles County Fair