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Vernon Fisher: In Pursuit Of The Frivolous And The Tragic

One of Texas' most important artists, and he paints self-portraits in Mickey Mouse and Frankenstein

by Jerome Weeks 11 Aug 2016
Vernon Fisher

At 73, Vernon Fisher may well be the most important painter Texas has ever produced. He has books written about his art. He has paintings in the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Hirshhorn, the Art Institute of Chicago. But Art&Seek's Jerome Weeks didn't catch up with him in such fancy places. He went to see Fisher in the same battered, street-front studio on North Main in Fort Worth he’s used for more than 30 years.

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative.  As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

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Video: Dane Walters

By the early 1980s, Vernon Fisher was part of a loose group of artists who broke with abstract painting. He’d been painting abstract works himself in the ’70s but, discouraged, he began playing with books and texts, scraps he found around his studio. One day, he was printing out words with an old Dymo plastic label maker.

“And I just saw a piece of a sandpaper out of the corner of my eye,” Fisher says. “I mean, it was like the light bulb, you know what I mean? It was classic. It was Archimedes jumping out of the bathtub — because those letters sanded through so clean and so sweet. I immediately knew I was going to leave abstract painting and I was going to make paintings with the text sanded through. And as soon as that idea happened, I just shut up shop and I went home. The emotion was just too heavy to keep working. ”

Fisher’s undergrad degree from Hardin-Simmons is in literature, so putting stories back into paintings makes sense. But he found he had to develop the right kind of story: hookish, short, vivid, metaphoric.  Our human impulse is to explain the bits and pieces we see, to make connections, create narratives. So the right text in an art work can be a great advantage. It can hold a viewer’s attention — longer than a still-life with apples, which gets 30 seconds from your typical museum-goer.

“Let’s face it,” says Fisher, “you’re standing up, you’re at an art museum. You don’t want to spend a lot of time. Nobody does. So you have to make a story that overcomes the natural inclination to move on. But if I can get them in a couple of sentences, I think they’ll usually finish it.”

stick chart detail

Detail from ‘Stickchart Navigation’ from 1983

“Language was becoming a very big part of the art world then,” says Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and co-author of a major career retrospective on Fisher. “Some artists were using just pure language, pure text — like Jenny Holzer. What brought Fisher attention early on was his use of text and image. And he was making ‘narratives’ that were often disjunctive. They made you wonder if the image actually fit the text. And in most cases, the relationships are oblique. They could be based on something you don’t even notice initially.”

In effect, Fisher’s paintings became open-ended rebuses, those little puzzles that mix pictures and letters to form phrases. The best known is probably “I [Heart] NY.” In the center of ‘Stickchart Navigation’ from 1983 (above), for instance, is a story about a woman’s husband always disappearing in their car and her attempts to find where he goes. That story is painted over an image of a single, empty diving platform out on a lake. Is that where the husband goes? Does that represent her isolation? Is that her search?

For Fisher, such works aren’t reducible to single meanings. “Anything that is resolved is either delusional or dishonest,” he declares. “We live far more arbitrary and capricious lives than we’re ready to admit. I think if we admitted it, we’d be scared all the time. Nothing in life is ever truly neat.”

We’re in Fisher’s Fort Worth studio this morning; he has fans on to keep the place livable. There’s no AC. In the winter, it gets so cold, he puts heating pads on works-in-progress just to get the acrylic paint to dry faster. His studio is an old tire and tube factory that sits in the stretch of North Main in Fort Worth that’s mostly car lots and empty warehouses. You could drive by and think this little storefront was boarded-up and empty, too.

front office

The front office in Vernon Fisher’s studio. All photos: Dane Walters

Yet in 1980, Fisher and his second wife Julie actually moved in here. They had to hide that fact from city inspectors; the place isn’t zoned for living quarters. The inspectors, he says, were mostly concerned with code violations about wiring and water heaters and the like; they weren’t looking for signs of residence. Fisher simply propped their bed against a wall and stacked boxes nearby. An artist’s form of camouflage: Hide it in plain sight, just give it the context people are already expecting to see.

So living there was cheap and rough and, Fisher admits, a little scary at night. Yet by the next year, Fisher had paintings in the Whitney Biennial and the Guggenheim in New York, plus the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C. If ever an artist had a golden ticket to head east, it was the 38-year-old painter. Yet Fisher stayed in Fort Worth and continued teaching at UNT.

“It was just too late to leave,” he says. “My children lived in Texas, I wanted to be near them. I mean, I had a family. And I had a teaching job, you know. I couldn’t be there. Those were the cards, y’know?”

So the art world came to him, here on North Main. Fisher’s works have appeared in London, Dusseldorf, Barcelona, Dublin, Mexico City — not counting all the shows in LA, Houston, New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, the major installation in San Antonio. He became, Auping says, one of the most significant painters from Texas, ever.

Fisher didn’t just get text into paintings. He removed text as well — while still working with ‘narratives.’ He’s painted narratives with only images, sequences of images like words in sentences, images that “rhyme,” he says, or images that contradict one another. He’s a chameleon of painting techniques, particularly in pop styles:  photorealism to cartoons to diagrams to imitation Raphael-from-an-artbook. The overall results may look whimsical or random, a few steps from doodles, especially when the paintings feature the occasional drip or splatter (“collateral damage,” Fisher jokes). He wants the paintings to look that way, to look “insouciant,” as he calls it.

At the same time, his paintings often include meticulously worked-out and generally useless ‘navigational aids.’ The story in “Stickchart Navigation,” for instance, involves the wife trying to figure out where her husband has been going based on the radio select buttons he’s chosen. “Stick chart navigation” is a form of ocean mapping used by Marshall Islanders to track major currents. And in the triptych form of “Stickchart Navigation,” one portion of the work is Fisher’s version of an islander’s stick chart, made of bent and tied-together sticks and seashells. Good luck finding your husband.

fisher's wallSince that 1983 painting, Fisher’s works have included maps, sky charts, globes (which get sliced open  in the 1988 work, ‘Man Cutting Globe’), graph paper, blueprints, mechanical renderings, rulers, anatomical drawings and catalogs. They quote (fictional) dictionary entries. Even the periodic table of elements makes the occasional, hilarious appearance. It’s characteristic of Fisher’s comic-skeptical outlook on human authority and these various systems of thought that several of the elements are pure inventions. “Angstium” and “deludium” are rather common substances, it seems, while “trinity” is named for his granddaughter.

In short, as “insouciant,” as wildly associational as his paintings’ imagery and techniques may appear, they are dense with cross-references and are carefully, well, mapped out. His narratives recall the deadpan humor of Richard Brautigan (an early model)  And making all that cartographic layering look casual takes time.

“I fight for time in the studio,” Fisher says, “because my work’s complicated and my pieces take a long time to do. This piece is like a month’ — he points to ‘I Am No A Monster” — “and that piece is a month” — he points to ‘Sea of Uncertainty.’ “A good year, I get twelve pieces.”

That suggests his art-making is compulsive. Will he ever really stop painting? “I’ve never really attempted to stop,” he says. “So I wouldn’t know, y’know?”

In 1987, Fisher bought a real house but kept this studio. We leave his front office for the workshop out back — and promptly encounter shelves and shelves of storage. Including plastic figurines of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Frankenstein.

fisher's toys

A shelf in Vernon Fisher’s studio.

As if to offset the complexity of his paintings — in addition to all of the fragmented systems on display, the blurry images on blackboards, the layers of erasures — Fisher often populates them with well-known cartoon figures or widely recognized movie icons like Mickey Mouse, Nancy and Sluggo, Frankenstein and Tarzan.

“We all know what Mickey Mouse looks like,” he says. “So if you change what Mickey Mouse looks like, we’re immediately aware of the difference and so realize you’re in a different kind of narrative. The whole key to making art is to make it strange. If it’s not strange, you won’t notice it.”

Frankenstein, on the other hand, the monster being chased through a swamp — that, Fisher admits, is a self-portrait. “If you grew up seeing yourself as alien, when you felt alienated from the group, from your family — maybe you didn’t, maybe if you didn’t feel this way, you’re not an artist, maybe people who are sane and happy don’t feel this way, but this is what I’m left with.”

So Fisher’s paintings can appear simultaneously disturbing and goofy. They send out mixed signals, to say the least.

When asked to list favorite or evocative music pieces that might accompany the radio portion of this profile, Fisher suggested the soundtracks from two of his favorite films, both by director Terrence Malick: ‘Badlands’ (1973) and ‘Days of Heaven’ (1978). In particular, he recommended Carl Orff’s ‘Gassenhauer,’ which was used in ‘Badlands.’  ‘Gassenhauer’ was written by Orff as an exercise for children (as part of his ‘Schulwerk’ training program).

So this is bouncy, lyrical children’s music — in a movie about Charlie Starkweather, the Nebraska ‘spree killer’ who murdered eleven people in 1957-’58 and went to the electric chair.

“Tone is very important,” Fisher says. “The attitude of the artist toward the materials is very important. And what I like to do is mix tones. Which is a no-no. But it makes it very interesting if you’re willing to engage in what’s going on.”

Fisher’s paintings are full of what he calls static, erasures, interruptions — all that “collateral damage.” Ultimately, what he’s after can be seen succinctly in one of his best-known works, “Bikini” (1987) — with its giant image of an H-bomb test juxtaposed with a silly-sad-looking octopus hazard from a miniature golf course, its clanky shape roughly imitating the looming mushroom cloud.

That match-up is “a mixture of the frivolous and the tragic. Which, to me, is so real.”

 

Swimming Lesions detail

‘Swimming Lesions,’ 1995, installation at Blue Star Art Space, San Antonio

When did you first feel you were a professional artist – that this was something you were not just going to do but would make a career of it?

That’s a more complicated question than you might imagine. There was a moment when I got into my first museum group show. It was here, in the Fort Worth Museum of Art back in 1970, and I was just out of graduate school, and so at the time, that made me feel professional in a way.

But to tell you the truth, whether you feel professional and competent depends on how the work’s going that day. If the work’s going well, you can leave optimistic and happy and looking forward to the next day – until that thought crosses your mind that makes you want to jerk the car off into a ditch. So it’s kind of a rollercoaster ride all the time, and it can be really exciting when you think that you’re about to get something good. And then you go ahead and do what you thought was going to be fabulous and you look at it in its actuality. And then there’s the grieving period where you know it falls short [laughs]. And then you pick yourself up.

You’ve had major museum retrospectives, studies written on you, books you’ve written. You’ve won NEA fellowships and a Guggenheim,  you’ve had paintings regularly sell for the price of a luxury car – and your feeling whether you’re a professional still comes down to how’d things go that day?

It’s a battle you fight every day, yeah. At least I do. There are certain artists who are probably extremely confident that don’t go through that. But I think the vast majority of artists daily swim in a sea of doubt.

 

VF in his studio - Basutoland

Vernon Fisher in his work studio – in front of ‘Basutoland’ (1986).

What have you given up to be an artist?

Every artist who’s serious, I think, gives up pretty much the same thing. But you’re not aware of the things you give up until you have that momentary choice. Like, see, the family wants to go on a vacation. And at that moment, you know you can’t, they’re going to go and leave you here because you’ve got a show coming up and you need to work. So at that moment, you feel like crap, you feel ‘Oh, geez, I’d really like to go and be with them’ – and there it is.

I guess your kids suffer from that. Hopefully, they’ll have had a colorful dad [laughs] and that’ll make up for that. But you can have a stable family life and be an artist if you’re an ordinary person like I am. I mean, I’m not a bohemian. Especially when the kids were young, I’d always kept a flexible enough schedule that I could be home when they came home from school.

Do follow any rituals when making your paintings?

There’s nothing that you can describe as a ritual, I don’t think. But what I do is delay my entrance into making the work until the last possible minute. In other words, I’ll gather materials in my mind. I wake up in the middle of the night and write something down. Or I’ll watch TV and work on text things because I’ll hear a word, a simple word like ‘eccentric,’ and I’ll think, ‘OK, how can I use this in a text?’ I accumulate things like that, I accumulate images not knowing what I’m going to do with them later. I mean, in my archives, I probably have fifteen thousand images that I’ve taken myself, photographs, diagrams that I’ve found in books and scanned in and so forth.

It’s like if you’re getting ready to make a movie, you have to pick your cameraman, your cinematographer, you’ve got  an editor in mind, which may be you, you’ve got a cast for this thing. And that’s kinda the way I work. I’ve got these images, I’ve got these texts in progress and the narrative of what the painting is going to be sort of emerges from mixing these things together.

That’s when you consciously start making choices, exerting some direct control?

It’s a battle that I have to fight each time I make a painting. I’m a control freak. I have an incredible system for working things. So what I have to do is put all kinds of obstacles in my way in order to find the freedom in order to make the work so that the work may look free.

It’s a matter of being in touch and letting things happen, y’know? I like art that looks like it’s just about to fall apart. And I’m so disappointed with my work when it doesn’t do that, when it looks too finished. So control is something I fight all the time.

We live far more arbitrary and capricious lives than we’re ready to admit. I think if we admitted it, we’d be scared all the time. Nothing in life is ever truly neat. And anything, any art that is neat, that is resolved, is either delusional or dishonest. So the illusion of control gives us the security to go home and feel free and safe and happy and –

– in control?

In control, yeah.

When I asked why you stayed in Fort Worth, you said it was too late to move. Was there a time you really wanted to go to New York or LA?

Yeah. From the very first time I went to New York – I went there in grad school in 1968 – I knew I wanted to be there. But I just couldn’t be there, you know?

So.

I used to hate teaching, for instance, because it always seemed a burden because I always wanted to stay in the studio. But I liked the teaching job, to tell you the truth, I liked the students. I’m still in touch with a great many of them. I met some great people teaching, students who were really thoughtful, creative people. I think my life was enriched by that. And I see that more now that I’m older. The whole time I taught, I was always two places at once, fighting for time. But looking back, I actually cherish those times because they were the only people I could talk about art and ideas with other than my wife Julie.

One of the questions from the list we ask artists in these profiles is ‘What inspires you?’ But judging from all the different images in your art and all the stuff you have here [in the studio], it seems just about anything does.

[laughs]. I’ve honestly never been without ideas.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Leyte, 1974

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