new paintings | paintings | vellum

counterpoint | artpresence | art press | artcritical


of two minds
| barry schwabsky

the conflicts and antagonisms that impinge on the place of painting in contemporary culture are innumerable, and they’ve been with us for generations. in wake not only of gerhard richter’s work, but also that of marlene dumas and luc tuymans, among others, the relation of painting to photography remains contested, as does the closely related issue of the dichotomy between representation and abstraction — and also that between abstraction and the readymade. another related problem, most obviously articulated in pop art and its many subsequent derivates, is the one often signaled by the dichotomy between high and popular art — although it would be more accurately articulated as the problem of what becomes of an art whose roots are entirely in high culture when the very division between high and low is becoming an increasingly dated historical artifact.

not only must any serious manifestation of painting implicitly take a position on such issues — every indication is that it must also fix on one or more of them as its very subject matter. a glance at the work of craig fisher is sufficient to indicate certain positions that have been taken: this art is entirely abstract and non-objective, and appears to have found an effortless equanimity in being able to align itself with the highest traditions of modern painting that go back through abstract expressionism to the impressionists — but in a way that never asserts a complacent or toplofty denial of all those formerly despised or ignored aspects of being that are now sometimes described as “abject” or “formless.”

that very equanimity suggests, however, that the tension that would give fisher’s work its true subject is not to be found in its vicinity. instead, let’s look for the irritant that impels this art in less specifically aesthetic, more broadly metaphysical terrain: in problems of human action, and specifically in the relation of will or intention to everything that, determinate or indeterminate as the case may be, seems to function independently of our will. the more perceptive of the critics who have commented on fisher’s work have always noticed the importance of this theme, david cohen marking the effect of a “courtly style in which volition is held to lack decorum, but in which it is equally poor manners to betray angst in the denial of volition” (art press, march 2000) where lilly wei found “chance configurations” of which fisher “acts more as agent than as author” (art in america, september 2000).

every action, every event must have its stage. isn’t that why these paintings take place on raw canvas? canvas is preeminently the place where painting takes place, and in order for this “taking place” to be exposed, made evident as such, the stage too must be made to show itself as a stage. so the canvas is that which, in the painting, has not yet been assimilated or subsumed into painting. or which will not be so assimilated, one might say, until the last minute — that is, until the fecund unity of the picture emerges from the sparseness and welter of those seemingly stray bits of pictorial matter that float as if indifferent to one another across the picture. the ambivalent nature of the canvas — its hesitation to be seen as either already a manifestation of painting or as a mere field, a readymade, on which that which is truly painting will take place — is lightly mocked in some of fisher’s paintings by certain passages that have been painted in a shade as close as possible to that of the canvas itself. fisher’s ability to joke with the fundamentals of his art in this way is, needless to say, quite distant from what in the ‘80s used to be mislabeled irony, despite one commentators having mistaken his work for a “tongue-in-cheek conceptual exercise” (kim levin, the village voice, october 26, 1993), which is just what it is not. it’s more like the matter-of-fact recognition that there are, after all, more serious things in life than this — a simple matter of keeping one’s fascination with art in perspective.

now as for the events that take place on this canvas: to characterize them is either too easy or too difficult. pours, smears, dabs, rubbings, stains… and i can use the thesaurus, if i care to, to expand the descriptive vocabulary to encompass flows, discharges, smudges, spatters, traces, blots, mottlings… but that will hardly give the reader a real sense of what these things look like. they are of the order of material instances that are differentiated but not individualized. sometimes they seem to be the kind of things that happen accidentally, but more often they seem rather to be the sort of marks one might make intentionally and yet absently—the kind of marks one might make in order simply to test a brush, or a particular mixture of pigments, that one intends subsequently to put to some more concerted use. and then there are marks that appear to be not on but somehow of its surface — places where the canvas itself seems to buckle and harden. these are caused by puddlings of paint on the verso — just as certain other more or less faint discolorations have been made by inundating the other side of the canvas with paint: another deconstruction, if you will, of the canvas’s status as ground for the events of the painting.

it is this sense of absented intentionality that leads me to believe that the underlying concern of the paintings is the relation of the artist’s intentions to the realm of determinacy and indeterminacy (which is to say the realm in which intentions are irrelevant). wasn’t that buster keaton’s subject too? houses fall down around him, but buster soldiers on as if everything were going according to plan and, somehow, everything does work out right. of course, that’s because his alter ego keaton was there behind the scenes directing the film. craig seems, in these paintings, to be rummaging around in the studio, spilling things, sopping up the mess, procrastinating by trying out his new brushes, doing anything but having a solid go at asserting his intention to make a painting — and somehow or other, at the end of the day, there’s a ravishing one anyway. lucky thing his alter ego fisher was there patiently directing. to get a grasp on the paradoxes of intention, it seems — the way you can fulfill them by evading them, and presumably frustrate them by carrying them out as well — you’ve got to be of two minds.

© barry schwabsky