PRINT May 2003


Urs Fischer is not Matthew Barney. The autonomous, if decidedly lo-fi, objects Fischer crafts are the very antitheses of the spectacular “sets” Barney creates to further his self-generated mythology. Barney’s practice literally trades in high production values: He typically fabricates secondary objects to finance the film extravaganzas that ultimately provide the narrative context on which his metasculptures depend. Fischer, on the contrary, is a “sculptor’s sculptor,” minus the backward-looking baggage the notion suggests. Like Dieter Roth, Franz West, Charles Ray, and Paul Thek, Fischer is firmly invested in a sculptural tradition without being traditional.

Fischer, who was born, raised, and schooled in Zurich but now divides his time between Los Angeles, Berlin, and his hometown, employs materials readily available at your neighborhood hardware store—wood, wax, Styrofoam, mirror, glass, pigment, plastic, glue—as well as found objects and organic matter such as fruit. But, with casual virtuosity, he transforms these common wares into powerful sculptures, often pulling together exhibitions in situ days before the opening, his pragmatic working style embodying the punk spirit that drives him. Fischer’s acute sense of humor and repertoire of self-deprecating tricks undercut his improvisational flair. A recent case in point: For his exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ in London this past January, “need no chair when walking,” Fischer produced three life-size, handmade, painted wax sculptures in the form of nude women. While these figures were rendered in a slightly cartoonish manner with exaggerated features and whimsical coloring (bright red nipples, honey-hued locks), they nonetheless alluded to canonical sculpture—but Fischer’s “three Graces” were in fact candles. Their wicks were lit at the exhibition’s opening, and the painstakingly made figures gradually melted away over the course of the show, eroding into a baroque pool of Technicolor wax and barely recognizable body parts.

Such a showing only adds to the aura of radicality that Fischer has managed to cultivate, from his earlier outings at the Stedelijk Bureau, Amsterdam (2000), and the ICA London (2000) to his most recent, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (April 2003). The source of his radicality cannot be attributed merely to innovation in form or process but to his paradoxically classical engagement with art-historical genres. From the beginning, Fischer has built his practice primarily on a dialogue with the still life, or as it is more appropriately termed in French, nature morte. In fact, he enacts sculptural vignettes of “dead nature” through his recurring use of real fruits and vegetables, in works ranging in form from an ornate arrangement of bananas, pears, and apples whose decay is arrested by a viscous coating of silicone (The Human Layer, 1999) to a more brutally direct coupling of half of a pear and apple, screwed together and simply hung from a nylon cord (Untitled, 2000).

In such works, Fischer has liberated the still life from a long history of academic painting, giving the moribund genre new vitality in three-dimensional form. These pieces most explicitly illustrate Fischer’s interest in transforming that bourgeois genre into a metaphorical vehicle for the exploration of base human condition: alimentary desire, coping with run-of-the-mill life, boredom. These decaying fruits stand in for Fischer’s own worldview, one that oscillates between self-indulgent passivity and pragmatic action. The humble poetry of his titles—Routine: Automatic Melancholy; The Trick is to Keep Breathing; Eternal Soup of the Day—confirms Fischer’s grounding in the most banal aspects of quotidian existence.

In Fischer’s more recent works, ordinary domestic articles are modified or created to be as awkward, perplexed, or burdened as the subjects who might use them. Among the household accoutrements that pepper Fischer’s oeuvre (beds, tables, shelves, cabinets, glasses, plates, and so on), chairs are by far Fischer’s favorite prop—whether crudely fashioned clay-and-wood constructions held together by wire and silicone (Last Chair Standing, 1997), found plastic garden chairs slathered with formless blobs of silicone and sawdust (Chairs, 1998–99), or a standard wooden model serving as the resting place for a melted human head made of clay and wax and covered in wood glue, all lacquered into a monochromatic shit brown (Gedanken kommen zurück ‘bitte,’ 2000). Somewhere between the heavy symbolism of Beuys’s Stuhl mit Fett (Chair with fat), 1963, and the casual functionality of West’s seating arrangements, Fischer’s chairs are not simple receptacles for the human body. Instead they are like prosthetics for the psyche, and they have as many variations as Fischer has moods and ideas.

One of these signature chairs costarred in a humorous mise-en-scène of several independent but related sculptural elements at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. One of his most compelling exhibitions to date, “What Should an Owl Do with a Fork” (all works 2002) concisely showed the wide range of Fischer’s formal vocabulary while expanding on his dark comedy of daily life. Entering the gallery, the viewer was first confronted with an unassuming white chair (Routine: Automatic Melancholy), which on closer examination proves to have been made of Styrofoam, each element meticulously nailed or glued together, its shadow painted on the floor. At the center of the show, a life-size dark pink candle molded in a female form slowly melted away (What Should an Owl Do with a Fork). A painted plaster bowl holding a real-seeming plaster pear and a real fresh strawberry (replaced each day by museum staff) sat quietly in a corner (Good Luck/Bad Luck Bowl) opposite two other painted metal “still lifes” (Good Good Breath/Good Bad Breath)—abstract renderings of flowers in their pots? In another corner, a scrappy stuffed dog—whose head and front legs seemed lopped off by a knife—stood propped up on a water bottle, its tail wagging monotonously like a metronome (Gypsy). Not unlike the nerve-racking rhythm of a drippy faucet, the mutt’s relentless ticking somehow linked the individual works together in the silent struggle of everyday life.

Gypsy provides a simple yet effective metaphor for an understanding of Fischer’s work: The truncated pooch’s ever-wagging tail is a pendulum that identifies a complete range of emotion, forms, and ideas without definitively resting at one extreme or another. Fischer toils to keep the pendulum swinging, evoking the cyclical trashing of his own “diet” as a productive impulse, not as self-indulgent or self-destructive. As Fischer has stated, “The work I make lies between [extreme ugliness and extreme beauty], so that the viewer has to engage more keenly. This area between the extremes is full of contradiction and emotion about our daily struggle with life—you give up drink, go on a diet, feel good about yourself, then trash the whole thing the next day, constantly swinging from one extreme to another.”

“What Should an Owl Do with a Fork” highlights a central strength of Fischer’s work: He is able to produce a complex ecosystem of extremes—beauty and ugliness; process and completion; delicacy and brutality; “poignant emotion” and wicked humor—all with an uncommon formal and narrative economy. This frugality is not a simple revisiting of arte povera’s ideologies of shabby materiality, poetic significance, and political gravity; eschewing any dogmatic vision of the world or artmaking, Fischer contrives, adopts, and appropriates the formal and conceptual strategies necessary to flush out the banal, contradictory, and oft overlooked details of life and art.

Alison M. Gingeras is a curator for contemporary art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.