André Fortes and Kevin Smith, July 2018, Portland, Ore.
Early on a hot summer morning, I greet André on his stoop and he leads me through a shared punk house nestled behind a freeway in downtown Portland. Upstairs, the space is occupied equally by André and his paintings.
I've been here before. He and I have known each other since 2012 when we took part in the inaugural class of the now defunct MA program in Critical Theory + Creative Research at PNCA. We immediately bonded over a shared affinity for thick paint, Hannah Arendt, and pushing back against the elitism of the Ivory Tower.
Since then he's earned an MFA, completed a 5-week drawing intensive in Rio de Janeiro with the renowned Charles Watson, and amassed over 25k followers on Instagram. He describes his username, primalscreamingwithfriends, as a pseudonym for his art practice, which includes a few distinct bodies of work-- smeared and drippy paintings featuring "the possessed subjects of Daryl Anka's extraterrestrial called "Bashar;" paintings with strange amalgams of the fleshy, the painterly, the clinical, and the downright weird (a chunk of meat wearing pants? check.); a prolific series of single panel cartoons which cut to the heart of the existential dread of living in late-capitalist America.
Throughout, André's work is sinister, cynical, deeply upset about its own circumstances. This sentiment rings true of the André I've known. He's a man who deeply considers the moral weight of his own decisions and exudes a visceral understanding of the unfairness of this world. Not bitter, rather, he describes himself as "hopefully pragmatic."
This is why the pervasive defeatist irony of his single panel cartoons initially struck me as out of character. He tells me he almost abandoned the project at the outset. "They were stupid," he says. But at the encouragement of friends, he kept going. In fact, as I explain, some of them are stupid-- they subvert expectations of 'serious' art with their existential one-liners-- and this is part of their prescience.
Although visually distinct, the single panel comics and the paintings both share a concern with "the conflict between faith and disbelief." It's a conundrum likely as old as consciousness-- the eternal battle between a meaningful purpose and the meaningless void.
André's work pries open a space for us to acknowledge the horror of existing in the face of so much suffering, while also constructing meaning from the fragments we find along the way. Space to consider "the very essence of sanity-- mystery, that is, the incompleteness of our understanding of the world and our place within it." It's a compelling idea and one that he attributes to G.K. Chesterton. Maybe recognizing the deep mystery of Everything can free us from deeply fortified ideological trenches. Maybe it's a matter of faith.