Constructing Narrative Eric Fischl Paints the Unconscious

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Eric Fischl in His Studio © Edgar Howard, Checkerboard Film Foundation.

When psychologists use the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)–a projective technique–they show drawings to their subjects and ask them to tell a story about each one.  Research has demonstrated that the narratives thus produced reflect projections from the unconscious and therefore can be used to assess mental states.  Unfortunately, in the case of the TAT, the images are hopelessly dated and far from neutral; reminiscent of film noir, they tend to produce rather depressive narratives.1

In developing compositions for his paintings, Eric Fischl relies on the same mechanism of projection that underpins the use of the TAT.  Beginning with disparate elements (initially drawings and more recently photographs), he plays with them until they assemble into an intriguing tableau.  Relying on his responses to these random arrangements to let him know when it’s time to paint, Fischl explains: “…for me it’s not a preconceived narrative, it’s a discovered narrative.”2

Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) “…let audiences look at the art of painting over Fischl’s shoulder,”3 an idea that grew out of a conversation between the artist and Susan Krane, executive director of the San José Museum of Art, where the show originated in collaboration with PAFA.  The accompanying catalog includes the transcript of an interview with Fischl about his artistic process, the film of which continuously played in a room at the exhibit.

Fischl’s working method is far more obvious in early sketches like Saturday Night (The Aftermath Bath) (1980), where one can readily see the four painted glassine overlays, each with its own subject.  In the later digitally manipulated photographs, the artist’s hand is less evident.

In Saturday Night, the bathtub sets the scene within which a nude man shaves, a woman in a black slip and high heels–lit cigarette in hand–sits on the rim of a tub, crosses her legs and casually glances over her shoulder at her audience, while a young boy, standing in the tub, looks down at his small penis, held in his hands.  Despite the casual intimacy suggested by the setup, the figures are absorbed in their own concerns, oblivious to one another–a perfect depiction of the disengaged family.

Born in 1948, growing up during the fifties and sixties, Fischl has written candidly about his family.  “I came out of a white, upper-middle-class, Protestant suburban background…I lived in essentially a secretive environment.  My mother was a ferocious alcoholic…It was a family shame, something you kept out of public.”  He went on to describe the contrast between the outside, which was “nicely kept yards, clean pressed clothes, and going to school on time,” and the inside, “frightening and tumultuous and violent and dirty and disgusting.”4  Afterimages of scenes observed by the boy he was pervade Fischl’s oeuvre.

Now able to direct the cast of characters–both created and found–the grownup Fischl has become the puppet master, shedding the role of helpless bystander to the drama that played out between his parents.  In the scenes of suburbia that he produced in the 1980s, Fischl intimated all was not well.  In many of them, boundaries dissolved and left the viewer wondering, “What’s going on here?”

That’s just the kind of question Fischl likes to imagine people asking when they look at his pictures.  It’s also part of what happens to him.  “I’m just sitting there looking at it and basically I’m going, what the fuck is going on here?!  Who are these people and why are they this way?”5  Rather than getting mired in such musings, Fischl revels in the ambiguity, picks up his oil-paint-loaded brush, and takes swipes at a large canvas.  This artist is no “knuckle painter.”  He is at least a “wrist” if not an “elbow painter.”6  Creating an active surface covered with perfectly placed colors, he fills the rectangle with figures vaguely relating to each other and engaged in activities that seem oddly familiar yet totally strange.

In roughly chronological order, the exhibit followed Fischl as he experimented with different methods of discovering narratives.  Works were grouped according to their relationship to each other, particularly enlightening when photographs taken on the beach at Saint Tropez (1982-1988) and for the Krefeld Project (2003) appeared in the vicinity of their respective paintings.  Sketches, sculptures and the occasional print revealed the breadth of Fischl’s gifts and the depth of his explorations.

With the diptych, Dog Days (1983), the artist exposed a private moment of early-adolescent lust juxtaposed with a cryptic comment on it.  Attention is drawn first to the right panel (rather than to the more usual left) of the two-painting set where on a balcony overlooking a tropical beachside road, a white cloth (perhaps a towel) has been spread out across a section of its sun-drenched concrete floor.  On it stands a boy wearing only a tee shirt (and perhaps briefs) who sports an erection as he reverentially touches the bare skin just above his nude companion’s red pubic hair as she, not quite finished kicking out of the bikini bottom that threatens to trip her, leans back and thrusts her crotch in his direction, making it easier for him to reach his prize.  Curiosity animates both their faces.

In the left panel, standing on a similar terrace, a grown woman clad only in white sandals and carrying a beach bag with a large water bottle emerging from its front opening, looks down at two mutts who return her gaze.  Her expression asks, “What do you want?” in response to their expectant looks.  A whisper of humor in both images lightens what could easily get crushed under the weight of psychological interpretation.  Fischl’s playful nature shines through in much of his work.

At the ripe old age of 36, riffing on the title of Joyce’s slim novel by gazing into the future instead of reflecting on the past, Fischl painted Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man (1984).  Hardly aggrandizing, this self-portrait positions the artist in front of a Jullian easel lacking palette and brushes but supporting a canvas with a thin wash demarcating sand and sky.  The white-haired, toothless old man, who wears only an open, short-sleeved blue shirt, looks up at the intruder from behind dark glasses and either modestly covers his partial nakedness or has been caught in the act of getting off, like a flasher exposing himself from beneath a newspaper discreetly positioned across his lap.

Defying compositional rules, Fischl placed the figure dead center, connecting the elderly artist visually via his shirt to the dark blue sky above, and to the ground underfoot by way of his skin tones.  He balanced the bright white of the surf on the left with the high value of the canvas on the right, sandwiching a band of bright yellow grasses between green immediately above and below.  The consummate craftsman, Fischl used a golden light and long shadows to denote late afternoon, a time of great opportunity for a landscape painter.

Similar questions of propriety surfaced in a quartet of charcoal drawings–grouped together in a two-by-two grid at the exhibit–of a nude man seen from behind, a series providing the viewer with a wonderful example of the artist’s imaginative wanderings.  The original idea for the first one, Untitled (Study for a Man Exposing Himself) (1987), seems to have sprung from Fischl’s photographs of bathers at St. Tropez.  A very young girl runs off across the sand with her back to a man with wrinkled skin suggestive of aging; he stands awkwardly in the foreground as though caught off balance.

That both wear nothing creates little tension in the context of the outdoor setting of the picture and the photos of a predominantly nude beach displayed nearby.  With the title, the artist invites the viewer to project malevolence onto the story; a pleasant seaside scene holds little interest for him.  Commenting on the impetus behind his work, Fischl explained, “I long for a stronger reality, I long for a drama, I long for a life-and-death experience that makes me feel alive.  And so I paint these people…these desperate people trying to find a better life.”7  “I don’t paint heaven.  I’ve never painted heaven.  I wouldn’t know how.”8

In the other three drawings–each labeled Untitled (1988), Fischl anchored the compositions with the nude man seen from behind, then drew in different elements and erased others, searching for that stronger feeling.  The most neutral arrangement puts flippers in the protagonist’s right hand and places him poolside, facing a swimsuited man standing in front of a beach chair, arms raised perhaps in greeting.

In a particularly quizzical version, the old man–maybe clothed in swim trunks–still carries flippers but now follows a woman whose headcovering and gown allude to wedding attire.  The lines Fischl used for the figures unite them as a couple, lending a sense of the ordinary to this most unusual pairing.

In the final drawing, confronting the nakedness of the man opposite her, a woman in full evening dress and highly-coiffed black hair stares directly at him with wide-open dark eyes and left hand on hip–her expression a cross between anger and alarm.  Ambiguity reigns.

Fischl found similar mystery in the lacunae he noted in the paintings of Thomas Eakins: “What’s compelling is what’s not there.”9  Several of the latter artist’s photographs were featured in the exhibit, their characters beckoning Fischl to incorporate them into fresh scenarios.  One especially compelling series showed the nude Eakins carrying a similarly undressed woman whose limply hanging arm, thrown-back head and closed eyes implied she’s sleeping or dead.

Undoubtedly intrigued by the narrative potential of those images, Fischl borrowed one for his monumental Once Where We Looked to Put Down Our Dead (1996).  Extracting Eakins’s nude duo from its original studio setting, situating it in a church interior and bathing it in sunlight streaming in from an unidentified source, Fischl confronted the enormity of death and questioned religion’s ability to provide solace in the face of it.

The painting was inspired, along with others in his Italian series, by the artist’s trip to Rome soon after his father died.  “If you need to mourn…Rome is the best place to do it…In Rome you live with great art, and great art talks to you about life and about death, about grief and about loss, and gives you permission to have all those feelings attached to them.”10

Toying with scale, Fischl shrunk the figures to enhance their vulnerability.  Bathed in light, the man carrying his dead moves in a dark and impersonal interior furnished with pews; a sarcophagus and memorial portrait speak to the traditional role of the church as a place to entomb the dead.  In this oil on canvas where forms have been blurred with smooth brushstrokes, lending them an insubstantiality, the figures’ starkly light impasto emphasizes their physicality and imperfections, setting them in opposition to the angular geometry of their surroundings.

For Fischl, the Eakins’s photo suggested “an essentially profoundly tragic moment, a scene of a man carrying a dead woman, presumably a lover.”11  In placing them in a church, he asked, “Is this a place that I can lay down my dead, my pain, my love, my tragedy?  Is this it and will it take care of it?  And again, that doesn’t get answered.”12

An opportunity to further ponder questions of attachment and loss arose in the early 2000s when Fischl was invited to develop a project using one of the Mies van der Rohe houses in Krefeld, Germany.  Whatever its architectural significance, to the artist the structure was first and foremost “a house, people did live there…I’d furnish [it], hire some actors, and take a bunch of photographs as if they lived [there].”13  To drive the action, using a common improvisation technique, Fischl would “set up these situations where I would only tell one of them something and the other one had to figure out what was going on.”14

The result was a collection of photographs (many at the exhibit, some matched with their paintings) from which Fischl selected and recombined elements to produce the Krefeld Project series.  Comparing a particular painting with its source photo did indeed offer a peak over the artist’s shoulder; one could pick out the elements he kept, the ones he changed and those he excluded.

A symphony in primary colors, Krefeld Project: Living Room, Scene #4 (2002) depicts a voluminous red robe inhabited by a blond woman with pasty face and hands emerging from it.  She is bracketed on the left by a curvaceous modern recliner–with cobalt blue highlights defining its arms and back–and in the right background by a bright orange vertical stripe and a deep-yellow vase whose color repeats in the shadows of its flowers.  A ghostly man stands near the right edge of the canvas, his lower half sized for a position in front of a nearby table, his upper half small enough to belong further back.  On the table rests an exquisitely constructed cup and saucer accompanied by a teaspoon, all economically indicated with just a few strokes of white.

With her back to him, the woman looks down, attending to the complicated process of securing her wrap around her.  Likewise clothed in a robe, the man directs his attention to the open magazine he’s reading.  The scene begs for an explanatory title but the mischievous Fischl leaves it to his audience.

A precursor to the Krefeld Project, the painting The Bed, The Chair, The Sitter(2000) also arose out of a colleague’s challenge to the artist.  Asked to “[enter] into a dialogue with Edward Hopper, specifically using two paintings…Summer in the City (1949) and…Excursion into Philosophy (1959),”15  Fischl sat with the idea for a couple of years before coming up with The Philosopher’s Chair (1999), a painting he described as being about “the inability to connect, to find satisfaction in relationships, or to realize sexual desire.”16

The chair featured in that work reappeared in a number of other compositions including The Bed, The Chair, The Sitter, of which an earlier, more fully developedversion (1999) exists.  On a very smooth linen surface, cool dark colors wash across the top of the painting, forming a backdrop for the action down in front.  Starkly illuminated by hot light originating off-stage to the right, a bare-legged woman sits on the floor with knees drawn up and head supported by her right hand.  She stares straight ahead as if watching something (television?) while a brown-suited man looms over her from behind, a few almost-white splotches for his hand and face set them off against the darkness from which he emerges.

A centrally situated overstuffed chair with wooden legs grabs focus, its red-on-beige vegetal pattern looking more like blood stains than decoration.  Washes of bright orange heat up the lower half of the picture, covering the floor, parts of both figures and the shadowed twin of the philosopher’s chair.  He (fully dressed) looks at her (minimally clothed) while she looks intently elsewhere.

Fischl’s quest for narrative is reminiscent of the small child trying to run away from home who endlessly circles his city block because he’s not allowed to cross the street.  This artist ends up at the same dimly lit corners of human relationships where estrangement rules.

Fischl’s attempt to connect isolated figures enhances the feeling of their separation.  Even when compressed together in a telephoto lens effect, like inScenes from Late Paradise: The Parade (2006-07), his characters seem miles apart, including the three practically identical dogs who set the pace.  In preparing for that very large canvas, the artist photoshopped together several different groups of beachgoers from his St. Tropez shots.

Using broad bristle brushes, and long strokes, squiggles and dabs, Fischl captured the glaring sun of the Mediterranean through high-value lights and warmer, dark tones, emphasizing the heat of midday by setting them off against a chilly blue sea, spots of blue for the bikini on the right, and green striping on the towel, the sweep of which creates an arch connecting the couple to its left with the two men marching in front of it.  The three men in the lead bend their right legs in unison while shadows announce disparate light sources; the paraders head in the same direction but inhabit different worlds.

Once again Fischl has subtly portrayed the disconnect among cohorts of a particular socioeconomic class, the one in which he was raised.  With wit, skill and a spirit of adventure, this artist bravely probes the depth of his unconscious, uncovering a treasure trove of material from which to fashion thought-provoking images.  He challenges his viewers to join him in discovering new narratives based on his offerings and their own projections.  The APA17 could do worse than to commission him to create a new set of pictures for the TAT.

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