John Bankston's '20 Years in the Rainbow Forest'

  • by Robert Brokl
  • Sunday March 3, 2024
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John Bankston's 'Same Boat' (Image courtesy John Bankston/ Rena Branston Gallery)
John Bankston's 'Same Boat' (Image courtesy John Bankston/ Rena Branston Gallery)

The two-decade survey of paintings by John Bankston, now at the Rena Bransten Gallery through April 20, features prime examples of the cartoony figurative work that's brought him renown, along with more recent work reflecting shifts in media, mode of expression and his personal life.

The artist asserts his identity as Black and queer and adds animals (large cats) to the mix, along with humor and nods to gay subculture. The earliest work on view resembles scaled-up coloring books, while his more recent work evokes a faux-naif world of vulnerability, evincing the influence of the Chicago Imagists, whom he encountered while earning an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

John Bankston's 'Midday Idyll' (Image courtesy John Bankston/ Rena Branston Gallery)  

This exhibition is titled "20 Years in the Rainbow Forest," but his airy woodland of stylized trees and flowers is less Sierra Club than Radical Faeries, the gay subculture movement formed in the late 1970s that played with pansexuality, hippie drag and outdoor celebration. (Burning Man may be a more mainstream and heterosexual adaptation of similar anarchic impulses.)

Bankston's escapist playland (not meant pejoratively) may be populated with Black gay men, but his work overlaps with the same narrative tradition of Bay Area feminist trailblazers like Joan Brown and Viola Frey.

As it happens, Bankston worked for a time in Frey's studio, producing figurative ceramic sculpture. Her expressionistic, antic, simplified depictions, so dissimilar to the photo-realists who were also members of the Oakland College College of Arts and Crafts faculty, may be another influence, although Bankston's world is more fantasy-based.

Joan Brown's repetitive use of a stylized version of herself as painter, swimmer, lover, and seeker is echoed in Bankston's use of a male figure, presumably the artist, often solitary and gazing at the viewer. He shares Brown's use of feathery brushstrokes and her fascination and identification with lions and tigers—in his case, as companions, muses and guardians.

John Bankston's 'Pink Sunset' (Image courtesy John Bankston/ Rena Branston Gallery)  

As with Brown, Bankston's humans and animals sometimes blend and merge. Frequently, as seen in the show's signature work, "Same Boat" (2007), figures wear animal skins and furs, more benign costuming or camouflage than spoils of big game hunting.

The "captain" in this painting is a studly Folsom Street leather daddy sporting an eye patch, cap, and vest over a bare torso. Interestingly, Bankston leaves one of his hands uncolored inside a black outline, an arty touch reminiscent of Warhol's silkscreen printing "errors." The same character takes center stage in "Midday Idyll" (2009). Provocatively lounging in a flowery meadow, he's Ferdinand the Bull personified.

Bankston's palette is bright, his "forest" a refuge, not a spooky, nightmarish entrapment. For the most part, his paint-handling is flat, as in a cartoon. One exception is the exuberant gay cowboy send-up "Pink Sunset" (2004) in which he plays with loaded brush strokes and arbitrary, splashy color, even adding blue swatches to a face.

Thematically, these unlikely cowboys wouldn't raise eyebrows in a gay setting. There are gay square dancing groups, after all, but the image resonates in contemporary mainstream culture. Annie Proulx's tragic "Brokeback Mountain" story appeared in 1997, with the Ang Lee movie version following in 2005. Pedro Almodovar revisited the tale and posited a less fatalistic ending in his recent "Strange Way of Life." But Lil Nas X's music video, "Old Town Road," from 2018, aligns most closely with Bankston's campy spoof.

John Bankston's 'Prince 1' (Image courtesy John Bankston/ Rena Branston Gallery)  

Bankston has expressed admiration for the doomed, posthumously elevated Black painter Bob Thompson, whose work was influenced by jazz and noted for simplified, flattened figures with political references. "The Prince 1" (2014) suggests the heroic Haitian liberator and former slave Touissant Louverture, wearing his signature uniform, a dressy "European-style" waistcoat with gold buttons and epaulets. Here, he's more boyish, practicing revolution.

His most recent work reflects the isolation of the pandemic, the George Floyd protests and a milestone birthday (60). The figures, rendered with acrylic and oil pastel —minus the black outlines seen in early works— seem more vulnerable.

Unfortunately, the 2024 suite of acrylic drawings on Carta Pura paper titled "A Walk in the Woods," is not on display. Ask, and the gallerists will gladly show it to you. Like Chinese ink-and-brush paintings, these sepia-toned works, with washes of subtle color, are gems. "#6 A Mournful Dance to the Sound of the Lost Horn" and "#8 Music Makes a Bond" are especially fine.

Good news, camping is explicitly permitted in this Rainbow Forest.

John Bankston's '20 Years in the Rainbow Forest,' through April 20 at Rena Branston Gallery, Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St. Open Wed-Sat., 11am-5pm.

Another version of this review appeared in

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