New York

Mary Fish

Touchstone Gallery

During the past few months I’ve seen a steady stream of vital, spiritual art in the galleries. The latest addition to this list is Mary Fish’s “Morphological/Mythological: A Meditation on Plant Systems and the Tarot.”

The works—all but one of which were drawings on gessoed paper with silver-point, ink, and egg tempera—grew from two ongoing rituals in Fish’s daily life. The first, which she calls the “Ritual of Watching,” involves the observation and documentation of the cyclical growth patterns of flowers in her garden; the second, the “Ritual of Knowing,” consists of regular readings of the tarot cards, which help her to gain some understanding of the present and future patterns in her life. The systems underlying these two rituals are very different: one is passive, the other active; one deals with natural and tangible cycles, the other with mystical and intangible ones. But both, in the words of the artist (who provided helpful background information for her concept-oriented works in written sheets available at the gallery), “reflect the concepts of . . . time and change.” Fish explores the relationship between these two temporal systems by interweaving, juxtaposing and combining elements of both.

The work that best describes Fish’s intentions is a three-part drawing on sand-colored paper, 20 inches high and 10 feet, 8 inches long, entitled Rituals of 7 and the Connotations Thereof. Texts explaining the “Ritual of Watching” and the “Ritual of Knowing” are printed on the far ends of the triptyc; seven line drawings of tarot cards and seven pictures of flowers are arranged horizontally in alternating sequence between these written explanations. (All tarot spreads depicted in the works represent actual readings done by Fish on the dates specified in the individual drawings.) Each of the seven cards displays an illustration whose overall outline echoes the form of the flower drawn beside it. Fish’s emphasis on structural similarities in this work is underscored by the inclusion of architectural motifs and rainbows divided into the seven colors of the spectrum. Delicate, ethereal and beautiful, Rituals of 7 successfully points out the correspondences between the morphologies of natural, constructed, symbolic and mystical systems.

Fish’s interest in structural—and, by extension, architectonic—form takes literal physical shape in Of 6 s and 7 s: The Sum of the Reading is Greater than its Parts, an installation consisting of a raised platform upon which stand a tarot table and two chairs. The furniture was constructed by the artist out ofunfinished pine, and all of its dimensions are based on the numbers six and seven, with “six” referring to the six petals of the iris and “seven” to the seven-card tarot spread. The tarot spread and the iris are depicted separately on gessoed Masonite inlaid into the table top and the chair seats, but the two motifs intermingle in the pine box placed on the table next to a chalice and a glass ball. This box contains a set of cards on which dated illustrations of irises in various phases of their life cycles replace the normal tarot symbolism.

Fish also interchanges tarot and floral motifs in two of the most successful works in the exhibition. Transmutation: A Study in Systems Substitution, a 331/2-by-561/2-inch drawing on pink paper, horizontally displays a nine-card tarot spread superimposed on a picture of a “Large-Flowering Trillium”; cards one and nine depict tarot trumps—the Empress and the Hanged Man—while cards two through eight represent a chronological sequence of stages in the flower’s growth and death. Morphologically Speaking . . . A Contrapuntal Meditation is a 40-by-75-inch drawing on pale green paper of the Sephiroth Spread, a complex arrangement based loosely on the Tree of Life diagram of the Cabala.

The interchange of motifs is subtle and effective in these works, both visually and conceptually. Two other drawings—Mourning Glory: Or Throwing Stones at the Moon and Great One of the Night of Time (Reversed): A Meditation on Time and the Tarot—are less well integrated. Both show tarot configurations superimposed on backgrounds covered with line drawings of morning glories, which pass from their open to their closed state as the viewer reads from left to right. The notations accompanying the pictures make it clear that these works aim to counterpoint Plant Time and Tarot Time—an interesting conceptual premise that, however, is not expressed to my complete satisfaction. The various elements are juxtaposed rather than interwoven, and their separateness is emphasized by jarring visual contrasts in the works: unlike the other drawings, these two contain “realistic” and brightly colored illustrations of the cards, which are clumsy and cartoonish next to the delicate silver outlines of the flowers. This contrast disrupts the continuity of Fish’s ethereal and metaphoric world, and makes it harder for the viewer to intuitively—rather than intellectually—understand the connections Fish attempts to establish.

Shelley Rice