Concentrations 17: Vernon Fisher
Concentrations 17: Vernon Fisher, Lost for Words was a special exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art from January 23 - April 17, 1988. The following is an essay from the brochure accompanying the exhibition, written by Sue Graze, then-Curator of Contemporary Art.
"Art seeks out the edges of things, of understanding;
therefore its favourite modes are irony, negation,
deadpan, the pretence of ignorance or innocence. It
prefers the unfinished: the syntactically unstable, the
semantically malformed. It produces and savours
discrepancy in what it shows and how it shows it, since
the highest wisdom is knowing that things and pictures do
not add up."
-T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers, 1984.
In describing the advanced art of the 19th century, art historian T.J. Clark aptly sets up a dialogue concerning the nature of the avant-garde, its purpose and context. These ideas, too, can be appropriately used to describe Vernon Fisher's art, for he establishes a kind of wobbly dialectic challenging one's perceptions and chastening one's notions about the relative nature of the world. The meaning of Fisher's art is a result of an intricate visual strategy whereby the combination of seemingly unrelated images elicits multiple associations that reverberate on aesthetic, social, political, and art historical levels. His art has a unique rigor and authenticity which places it among the most highly regarded of his generation.
For more than a decade Fisher has created multi-media painted wall constructions involving fictional narrative texts, images and objects depicting personal incident, allegory, and memory. Moreover, his art also employs ideas embodying scientific investigation, mystery, social convention and the wry humor of life. Within the context Fisher creates, he plays havoc with images and language and their relationship to each other on a purely aesthetic and conceptual basis. And finally, Fisher's art implies that under intense scrutiny all linguistic and visual communication breaks down; any system examined too closely loses its traditional meaning and instead takes on an absurd quality. Walking a tightrope between reality and fiction, the illogical and the rational, the sublime and the mundane, the artist accentuates and subverts the power of words and images and in turn one's perception of them.
Since 1978, Fisher's site-specific installations have been an important focus of his work. The neutral white walls Fisher works with promote the varieties of meaning and act as a dimensionless stage and atmospheric field. Yet within each situation, a unique overlay of architecture exists, always creating a new context for the work. In this physical setting Fisher incorporates real time, space, and memory into his already multi-layered concepts.
For the Dallas Museum of Art, the artist has created his most ambitious site-specific installation to date, combining traditional painting on canvas, three-dimensional sculpture, text and painting directly on the wall (12 elements all inclusive) over an architectural span of almost 200 feet. Fisher has choreographed the space to make the viewer aware of the processional nature of this architectural area, yet at the same time he subverts it- forcing the viewer to waver among text and image - a kind of balancing act that continually insists upon active audience participation.
Beginning at the north end of the Museum Concourse, one is introduced to the installation Lost For Words by words themselves, a text entitled ELF, written by the artist. As with all of Fisher's fictional pieces it sets a tone, both through its narrative content and structural ambiguity. His language is melodramatic, yet droll, describing radio signals of extremely low frequency (ELF). This imaginary system is so sensitive and rigorous that ultimately its meaning is both altered and confused. Thus Fisher begins his installation with an investigation and comment on the significance of artificial systems within the modern world. The text itself incorporates a good amount of illogic because an actual narrative interruption occurs within the story, a phrase is inserted without any immediate external reference. Just as Fisher's images often incorporate a kind of visual interruption within their field so too does his text. Again, the work emphasizes the breakdown of communication under circumstances beyond rational control or understanding. Fisher describes this literary and visual concept as analogous to radio or TV static. Simultaneously, the piece is about deciphering and destroying codes. From this point on in the physical space Fisher coaxes the viewer back and forth presenting a variety of images all painted directly on the wall. He offers one a kinesthetic experience where both physical and mental perspective are regularly shifting.
As the viewer continues to meander he encounters a pair of surveyors whose actual site line pushes both the eye and body forward in space. And hovering upon this line is a figure just losing his balance, walking the string like a tightrope. Again this juxtaposition of images focuses on humanity's inability to establish a permanent or singular reality. Continuing approximately one-half way along this lengthy corridor one happens upon a signature image for the artist, a large faux blackboard, in this installation shaped like two globes, with a striking painted image at their convergence. The blackboard idea is perfectly suited to Fisher's concept since it has a particular physical presence and also serves as a symbol for intellectual investigation, memory, reverie, discovery, and experimentation. By placing a seemingly unrelated image of a woman being tested for lateral visual perception squarely in the area where his two global worlds collide, Fisher subverts and interrupts the blackboard logic. Perception is the issue here, how different vantage points both physically and psychologically alter one's view of the world.
Concluding one's experience with this piece, the viewer discovers a variety of images, from a 3-D comic frame to a dot-to-dot Disney Pluto, images of quasi-scientific investigation, and finally ending with a large acrylic on canvas painting of the Bikini Island nuclear bomb test. Although the image has an awesome, frightful quality, it is distanced from the viewer, made to resemble a tattered disintegrating photograph. Here again Fisher employs the idea of interruption or static by placing an octopus image from a miniature golf course within the midst of this Bikini field. All seems conceptually askew, but both bomb and octopus share a similar bulbous, sensuous form, and both images are simultaneously strongly horrifying and banal.
Fisher's Dallas installation begins with a text and ends with a painting, thus combining intellect and allusion into a complexly layered work. Questioning the notion of order, Fisher's art insists upon a number of different experiences - visual, tactile, intellectual, emotional, and physical. Thus his strategy is truly the opposite of 20th-century precepts of a streamlined, controlled objective order. It moves from the cosmic to the mundane, the past to the present, from echoes of Duchamp to Magrittean surrealism, and Jasper Johns' pop. Fisher has said, "There are really two stories in my paintings," and indeed there may be more.
Sue Graze, Concentrations 17, Vernon Fisher: Lost For Words, January 23 - April 17, 1988.