Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Through January 2, 2011
by Noah Simblist
120 x 120 x 36 inches
It’s not a common thing for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to program solo exhibitions of North Texas artists. K-Mart Conceptualism, a survey of Vernon Fisher’s career, is an exception. Fisher, who lives in Fort Worth and taught at the University of North Texas for thirty years, has exhibited internationally. His work is included in prestigious collections, such as The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and LACMA. Yet Fisher is an artist who lives and works at the periphery of an art world that is primarily concentrated in New York and Los Angeles. He is an artist of contradictions, cosmopolitan in his influences, who speaks with a long thoughtful southern drawl and makes literary paintings and installations replete with visual puns.
The exhibition’s curator, Michael Auping, was interested in the aspects of Fisher’s work that incorporate intersections between Pop and Conceptualism, crossing between painting and installation. The artist began his career in the 1970s when Conceptualism was king and matured as painting began to reemerge in one of its many rebirths in the early 1980s. This context set up a practice that continued for decades to slide in and out of media and easily definable movements.
Much of the work incorporates a grid, which Fisher has described as “a site where ideas are tentatively explored.” This roots his practice in a similar terrain as Conceptual artists who emerged from formalist roots. Modernists such as Piet Mondrian or Agnes Martin used the grid to allude to the space of the picture plane, but through their reductive processes, it became a territory for expression in itself. Conceptual artists like Mel Bochner, Sol Lewitt and Fred Sandback also incorporated the grid, but purged their forbearers’ penchant for transcendental aspirations. While Warhol’s Campbell soup cans weren’t purely abstract, they still embraced a kind of modernist literalism, equating the utilitarian function of the grid with everyday decisions like what to have for lunch. Fisher’s works fill the space of the grid with appropriated imagery and a symbolic narrative lexicon that flies in the face of the purities of both Conceptualism and Pop.
Works like After Malevich (1991), which combines a sculptural black cross and taxidermied raccoon, and Heart of Darkness (1986), which is composed of a black and white metric cube with a landscape painting on one corner, speak to the histories of modernism and their aftermath. Fisher seems self-conscious of his post-modern condition, taking an almost gleeful approach to playing with the detritus of what is left behind after the belief in universal truths and strategies of essential reduction have both been exhausted.
The Raw & the Cooked (2006) also uses a grid to lay out what Fisher has called “a metonymic slide” of images surrounding a copy of a head from a Raphael portrait, including stills from Tarzan movies, a chimp in the wild and a host of colonialist hunters. The title of the painting refers to a text by the structuralist French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who argued that “savage” and “civilized” cultures shared the same underlying characteristics. The notion echoes the modernist belief in the universality of formalism and the one-size-fits-all approach of the grid.
Perhaps the most striking piece in the exhibition is Boat, Island, Ape (1991), an installation where Fisher cuts the word “KONG” into the wall. The resultant letters of discarded drywall lie in a heap on the floor, and a tiny boat, like the one that brings King Kong back to “civilization” in the famous 1933 movie, sits amidst the rubble. The sculptural elements are accompanied by sound effects usually heard in cartoons when someone has fallen off a cliff or is hit over the head with a skillet. This allusion to the ridiculous is a tragicomic gesture, showing us that cartoons, Kong and Tarzan movies, anthropology and the purity of abstraction all are narratives of failure. What’s most important to Fisher is that we can recognize this and laugh at our own hubris.
Noah Simblist is an Associate Professor of Art at SMU and a PhD student in art history at the University of Texas, Austin.