Messages from the unconscious … Untitled (Pink Moon) by Forrest Bess. Photograph: Robert Glowacki Photography/Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody/Modern Art, London

Camden Art Centre, London

During the Second World War, Forrest Bess was a member of a camouflage unit before having a breakdown. He then started writing down his nighttime dreams, with startling results

How diverse and unusual Forrest Bess’s paintings are. Uneven black tables bumbling about a space. There were rows and rows of dicks, rows of similar mustachioed faces, and something that resembled a string snowflake. If it’s a flower, a face in a golden blossom, in front of a mesa beneath a blood-red sky. They are sometimes difficult to comprehend. the types of visual disruptions you experience when you rub your closed eyes with your fingers. Are those animals in the field dogs? Cattle? Sheep? Either a bicycle seat, the plugged head of a penis, or something else completely is arching over them.

Jostling symbols …Untitled (No. 6) by Forrest Bess. Photograph: Robert Glowacki Photography/Courtesy Modern Art, London

Out of the Blue, the first institutional exhibition of the late American artist’s work in the UK, makes things more crazier. Bess, who was born in 1911 south of Bay City, worked as an oilfield roughneck for a while in his youth, briefly studied architecture, and after a false start period of awkward expressive figuration and still lifes, was attached to a camouflage unit during the Second World War before having a breakdown. Bess started keeping a journal of the dreams he had starting in the 1940s. He said that he carefully sketched and painted each one. The more closely you examine them, the more their seeming directness and simplicity betray a sophisticated intellect.

The tiny artwork sparkle against the dark walls as artificial light washes across them (Bess always wanted to hang his paintings on black walls, but this is the first occasion when they have been.) Bess’s paintings, which are generally hung chronologically, are tales spoken in the dark; many of them, with their extremely simple, unpainted wood frames (the timber was salvaged wherever he found it), were also designed to be held, to be inspected, and to be decoded. The painter recognized that they were just as much objects as they were pictures and equally as much unconscious messages. His paintings changed often yet nevertheless managed to remain constant.

The paintings themselves seem completely developed, with little alterations or obvious changes of thought in their development, and Bess appeared to be both their transcriber and creator. Although they seem frank and forceful, they are sometimes painfully unintelligible. Moonlight on the river, the sun, and the moon mirror his surroundings in Chinquapin Bayou. Bess spent a large portion of his life on a tiny island on the outskirts of a settlement just off the Texas coast amid a treeless environment of tidal flats and low islands, sand-bars, and bayous, earning a meager livelihood by trawling prawns and capturing and selling bait-fish to sport anglers. He worked on a series of dilapidated houses that he regularly had to reconstruct after hurricanes and other calamities. Although he also created annotated crib-sheets that provided a sense of what these symbols meant, his paintings are also loaded with shapes and symbols that are hard to decipher. This is despite the fact that everything seen and experienced here clearly influenced him.

Intellectully curious … Crowded Mind/Untitled (The Void I) by Forrest Bess. Photograph: Andrea Rossetti/© documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH

Bess, who exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York from 1950 to 1967 and shared a studio with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and subsequently Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin, was never really an outcast or a loner. Bess, though, withdrew to the south after feeling like a hick in New York. He had no reliance on the city for his feeling of self-discovery. Bess was also an avid letter writer and maintained contact with notable art historian Meyer Schapiro, who served as an early supporter. Carl Jung, Bruno Bettelheim, and Parsons were among her other correspondents. He also wrote to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president.

He was well-connected and academically interested while being sometimes perceived as self-taught. He researched sexuality, Taoism, and alchemy. Bess made at least two attempts at self-surgery in the 1950s in an effort to achieve hermaphroditism. Bess developed his thoughts into a thesis that was supported by images of his own genitalia, medical pictures, and medieval woodcuts. The thesis has since been lost, but pieces of illustrated letters on the subject, as well as pages from his correspondence, gallery catalogs, and other materials, are included in the Camden exhibition (the vitrines are too high for small children to come across the more alarming images included here).

Rich inner life … The Three Doors by Forrest Bess. Photograph: Andrea Rossetti/© documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH Photo: Andrea Rossetti

The works of Hilma af Klint, Kandinsky, and Mondrian would not have grown as they did without the inspiration of ideas and convictions that we may find enigmatic, naïve, or tiresome. Alongside more conventional religious and philosophical views, whether well or badly absorbed, some artists’ work has included theosophy, obscure color symbolism, religion systems, and even the belief in extraterrestrial visitations. How well-versed in the Kabbalah and Jungian archetypes was Barnett Newman compared to Pollock? Is it important? If it helps you get through the day, having a full inner life is not something to laugh at.

Some of Bess’s most elusive pieces have a profound precision and purpose. In one illustration, two typical pink rectangles rest on a background of darkness. An uneven patch of raw, shattered crimson spills over the edge of the canvas, bleeding from one rectangle. These rectangles have been compared as testicles by the sculpture Robert Gober, who has given Bess a lot of attention. Aside from orifices and golden sperm running through the testes, we may also see visionary landscapes, shafts into the body, dualities, splittings, and masses of symbols jumbling within the brain in other paintings. Bess passed away in 1977, yet his art is still resolute and difficult to understand. It still terrifies me.

A change was made to this article on October 4, 2022. Forrest Bess was listed as having served in the first world war, not the second, in an earlier edition.

The Camden Art Centre in London is hosting Forrest Bess: Out of the Blue until January 15.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.