Review: Eric Fischl, turning pictures into painting

"Livingroom Scene," from the Fischl exhibition at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It contains only 14 large paintings, but dozens of photographs and drawings that were their sources.
"Livingroom Scene," from the Fischl exhibition at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It contains only 14 large paintings, but dozens of photographs and drawings that were their sources.
Posted: July 16, 2012

From the pastoral serenity of "Visions of Arcadia" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we turn this week to its antithesis, the paintings, drawings, and photographs by Eric Fischl at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

As with the Arcadians, nudes and semi-nudes predominate in Fischl's work, but there the resemblance ends. Instead of idyllic harmony, Fischl gives us tension, ambiguity, mild — and sometimes explicit — eroticism and the unsettling sense of not being able to figure out what's going on.

Fischl has been making such visual provocations since the 1980s, when he became known for suggesting on canvas that suburbia was something less than a white-bread paradise.

In this show, organized by PAFA in collaboration with the San Jose Museum of Art, we are shown the sources of his disturbing vignettes and how he constructs them.

"Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting" plays like a visit to the artist's studio. It contains only 14 large paintings, but dozens of photographs and drawings from which the oils were derived.

Thus, the show is as much about process as about result: It could be subtitled "Painting in the Age of Photoshop."

Painters have been using photographs as source material since the 19th century, as the exhibition acknowledges by including images by Thomas Eakins and some Fischl transcriptions of Eakins poses.

Fischl distinguishes what he does from what Eakins did, and the difference is easy to see.

As he observes in a catalog interview, a posed figure represents "a frozen moment that never moved."

As an example, look at the nude young men that Eakins arranged along a stone retaining wall for his painting The Swimming Hole. It's obvious that they didn't settle into such a harmonious arrangement by chance. The composition is too well balanced to be random.

By contrast, Fischl says, a camera arrests motion in a way that makes it evident that a body, or bodies, were in transition. His interest goes beyond that, though; he likes to present bodies stopped in awkward postures, out of equilibrium, in between attitudes that might look like deliberate poses.

Doing this bypasses documentation and narration and carries the artist, and his audience, into a state of almost-but-not-quite, which in Fischl's paintings typically translates as dramatic tension.

We don't usually know exactly what's going on — what just happened, or what might be about to happen — but not being able to resolve the scenes makes them intriguing psychologically, and sometimes emotionally.

So the first thing one takes away from Fischl's pictures is the realization that they're grounded in photographs, usually his own. After absorbing them, one should be able to recognize the photographic imprint in other paintings composed from similar sources.

Fischl uses the camera to collect a variety of impromptu poses; many of his photos were made on beaches in the south of France. One figure that turns up repeatedly in his paintings is a woman I call the Rokeby Venus, because her torqued-body, seen-from-behind, semi-reclining pose recalls a famous 16th-century nude of that name by Diego Velazquez.

I'm not sure it was necessary for curators Harry Philbrick and Jodi Throckmorton to show us so many photographs to make their point, because Venus by herself establishes it. The artist identifies an appealing figure, then inserts her into a number of contrived scenarios.

Many of these — A Brief History of North Africa and What There Is Between You and Me — are beach scenes; swimming pools also are favorite Fischl settings. Both beaches and pools allow him to display bodies, naked or nearly so, and conjunctions of them that suggest sexual opportunity or activity.

One suite of paintings, "The Krefeld Project," accomplishes the same objectives in a domestic setting. For these paintings, Fischl hired a German actor and actress to stage a series of interactions in a modish apartment. The result is a cinematic puzzle on which the viewer struggles to impose narrative coherence.

The Krefeld pictures reminded me instantly of a famous painting by Degas, in the Johnson collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, titled Interior (The Rape).

It may or may not depict the immediate aftermath of an assault — a man and a woman in a room, something has just happened, or is about to — but the scene refuses to settle into psychological equilibrium.

With Fischl, as with that Degas, the objective isn't to tell a story but to generate drama. Fischl has been adept at this from the beginning of his career, sometimes using as catalyst the figure of a dog. Why this works I have never been able to understand.

In career chronology, "Dive Deep" goes back to the early 1980s. In paintings from that time such as Woman Surrounded by Dogs and Dog Days, sexual overtones are easier to sense. In the latter, an encounter between two adolescents on the balcony of a beachfront condo is explicit just short of congress.

Sex in the Krefeld suite is more sublimated. I sense, though, that Fischl is primarily interested in the psychology of these tableaus rather than their physicality.

As for Photoshop, Fischl didn't always use it; he began with drawings on glassine (translucent paper) that he could pin up and shift around. Photoshop is the technological equivalent of old-fashioned montage. Why not use it if the results are equivalent?

This raises the inevitable question, why should he make paintings at all? Why not just take the raw material and Photoshop it into large-scale photographic prints?

I think if one considers the paintings thoughtfully the answer will become apparent. Photoshopped images retain their inherent documentary character, even when it's not apparent that the prints are composites. They imply slices of life as it actually happened.

Painting, more artificial, translates the images into theater, with its concomitant separation from real life, and strengthens the dramatic ambiguity. Consequently the situations become more intense, the emotion more focused.

The best of Fischl's paintings are, like the Rokeby Venus, slightly mysterious, a quality harder to achieve in a photographic print.

The bottom line of "Dive Deep" is this: The means of achieving a painted image are far less important than the quality and presence of the image itself. The photographic sources are interesting up to a point, but eventually one circles back to the 14 paintings, wherein final judgment and satisfaction, or disappointment, ultimately resides.


Fischl at PAFA

The Eric Fischl exhibition continues in the Hamilton building of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry Streets, through Sept. 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 5 Sundays. Admission to special exhibitions is $15 general, $12 for visitors 60 and older and students with ID, and $10 for visitors 13 through 18. Information: 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org.

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