PRINT May 1999


IT ISN’T OFTEN TODAY, in this age of cynicism, irony, and other well-oiled suits of shiny emotional armor, that one enters a museum or gallery and suddenly finds oneself standing stunned before a contemporary work of art. The typical response to the typical styles of our times is a small, knowing smile, a mild “That’s nice,” or a helpless shrug. So what a surprise to encounter the usual complement of the hip, the blasé, and the curiosity-seeking gathered in silent, ambushed clusters before a group of contemporary paintings—a scene I witnessed some years ago when I attended my first Eric Fischl show at the Mary Boone Gallery’s old space in SoHo.

My own response was immediate and visceral. Here was an artist tunneling through the complexities of a genuine, urgent vision, operating as much from his gut as his head, and actually saying something, it seemed to me, that desperately needed to be said. The obsessions were familiar. This was a kindred spirit at work.

Fischl is the rare contemporary painter prompted by decidedly novelistic impulses. In his pictures actual events have happened, are happening, or are about to happen, each painting freezing a moment in a chain of occurrences that demands to be “read.” And the reasons the eye becomes so thoroughly bewitched are two: the compellingly erotic and cryptic nature of his representation and a certain clumsiness of execution.

All of Fischl’s various assets and debits are on prominent display in his mesmerizing Inside Out. A biting portrait of America at play, this triptych depicts, in pointed detail, the country’s holy trinity of entertainment, shopping, and sex, good bourgeois at leisure, presumably reaping the rewards of all those grinding hours of dutiful employment in the happy cubicles of corporate America. This is Fischl’s vision of his fellow citizens “having fun”—and what a numbingly cheerless lot they are.

There’s a telling, ’20s-Berlin cabaret atmosphere to the rightmost panel, in which jaded nightclubbers with haunted, evacuated faces can hardly be bothered to summon a response to the somewhat absurd semiclad combo on display before them. These people have seen it all, done it all, and the general air of listlessness is so consummate that not even the naked young woman in black stockings clutching the phallic clarinet can quite penetrate their soulless boredom. Here in this room it’s always four in the morning and the inner self is as empty as the glass in front of you.

In the center panel an intriguingly lifelike dummy is posed in a provocative attitude of self-regard, while on the floor at her feet a small boy crouches like some sort of feral creature, grinning grotesquely, and craning to look up her lifted skirt, all before the oddly inscrutable gaze of a man with arms folded (the clerk? the boy’s father?)—the whole mise-en-scène a bizarre mockery of the shopping experience.

But it is the image of the lefthand panel that can be seen as being central to Fischl’s entire oeuvre. Before the blank eye of a video camera a naked couple engages in a session of inventive sex as the woman underneath reaches out in media coitus to adjust the controls of the TV monitor they are apparently watching themselves on. The sense of psychic estrangement from the vital processes of life could scarcely be more keenly displayed. Just as the values of the corporation have cone to be indistinguishable from the values of society as a whole, the very tone of television, Fischl suggests, has thoroughly and irretrievably infected the reality beyond the box. The cool, distant, passionless light of the cathode-ray tube now provides our guiding illumination, and a bleak, antiseptic light it is. In Fischl’s world a television screen sits like a glass idol at the center of every heart, transmuting even that most primal of human needs, the sexual act itself, into just another empty exercise in drab voyeurism, even for its participants. And to be ceaselessly seeking reflections of oneself is to be forever hounded by the question, Am I real? Fischlland is a listless, denatured, devitaminized limbo where not even the friction of sexual organs can generate much heat or comfort.

But Fischl’s barbed themes and striking imagery are further complicated by a curious and significant crudity of technique. The blatant ungainliness of his draftsmanship, the clumsy mannequin-like quality of his figures (and not just the impossibly awkward positioning of the legs on the mannequin, in the middle panel), the brazen ugliness of the composition, the muddiness of the colors, are all obvious and sometimes off-putting aspects of his work. Yet, strangely enough, these numerous “flaws” actually serve the painting’s overall effect. Nothing seems settled, there’s a disquieting aura of unfinished business to the work, no safe, secure spot for the eye to rest. Combine this raw technique, or lack of technique (it’s difficult to tell how intentional all this is), with the raw subject matter, and the result is a field of visual and emotional dissonance that willfully resists completion.

In a time where every new piece of mediocre music, writing, or film seems to come wrapped in high-gloss packaging, the sense of aggressive coarseness one finds here is as radical and subversive in its own nose-thumbing way as the harsh juxtaposition of the privately erotic with the publicly avaricious.

Fischl reminds me of the novelist Theodore Dreiser, another artist who employed the messy authority of sex like a can opener on a previous turn-of-the-century America, and whose own notorious stylistic deficiencies could not obscure the authentic emotional power of his vision. It’s as if both men are saying, “Forget about napkins. Forget about table manners. What I’m cooking up can’t be served in any other way.” And frankly, I think they’re right.

Stephen Wright’s most recent novel is Going Native (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).