READING THE ART CRITICISM that accompanied Meyer Vaisman’s late-’80s rise from East Village scenester to neo-geo celebrity, you can’t help but notice how certain adjectives keep cropping up: cynical, calculated, and above all, slick. I’d happily wager that not one of these words occurs to viewers of Barbara Fischer/Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, 2000. Pathetic, maybe, or perhaps even grotesque—but definitely not slick.
The star of Barbara Fischer/Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy is Barbara Fischer herself, or rather a life-size fiberglass cast of her naked body. Fischer, who happens to be Vaisman’s former longtime therapist, is hardly the usual artist’s model. She’s homely, middle-aged, and distinctly overweight, and the fiberglass impassively records every detail of her sagging flesh. In a gesture that recalls the films of Federico Fellini, Vaisman has sat Fischer on a plywood pedestal, draped her in yards and yards of hot-pink tulle, stuck a jester’s cap on her head, and covered her eyes with mirrored sunglasses. Like some carnival sideshow Madonna, the therapist cradles a harlequin costume made of Vaisman’s parents’ cast-off clothes in her outstretched arms.
A fat old lady swathed in pink tulle is laughable, to say the least. But it’s also kind of heartbreaking—and a surprisingly effective metaphor for our own intense, but often impotent, desires for self-transformation. May, 2000, installed on the gallery’s opposite wall, echoes this theme. Six lit votive candles are adorned with photographic decals of a scowling Vaisman sitting in a playground dressed in the motley harlequin outfit—as if therapy led not to self-realization but to the creation of an endless series of inauthentic alter egos designed to placate a jealous psychoanalytic god.
Above all, Barbara Fischer/Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy is an emblem of perhaps the most mysterious—and, on some level, certainly the most absurd—aspect of psychoanalytic treatment: transference, or the projection of primal feelings about one’s parents (ranging from excessive idealization to utter contempt) onto the neutral figure of the analyst. This particular case seems to involve Vaisman’s narcissistic fantasy of himself as the impossibly perfect martyr of a (failed?) encounter with the therapist-cum– mother, whose unconditional love is still not strong enough to resurrect her stricken son. Or, conversely, as the paranoid child who must simultaneously evade and conform to the expectations of a monstrous, omnipotent adult. Either way, Vaisman’s allegory of psychoanalysis is less cynical than so unflinchingly honest about its own indulgence and self-loathing that it earns a kind of redemptive grace.
With Barbara Fischer/Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, Vaisman (like his neo-geo compatriot Ashley Bickerton) appears to be rethinking those late-’80s truisms that heralded the subject as an infinitely malleable “construction” and likened its mechanisms to the commodity object. Not to suggest that Vaisman has jettisoned his earlier stance in favor of a more romantic view of the self. In Barbara Fischer/Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, there is no “true” self waiting offstage to make its grand debut. But whereas Vaisman’s early work addressed the subject’s endless circulation through networks of distribution and exchange, Barbara Fischer/Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy emphasizes precisely those areas of deepest immobility in a self that, although ultimately no less empty, feels infinitely more complex.